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Wolf's Reign

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Dust kicked up all around the horses as Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, rode down along the desert road known as the Prince’s Pass, with his six other northern compatriots in tow. As they drew closer to their goal, the long shadow of a single, imposing stone tower began to cover their approaching line with the setting of the sun. The Tower of Joy it was called; the place that held his sister, Lyanna.

At the base of the tower, Ned saw three figures wearing the unmistakable white cloaks and silver armor with the three headed dragon sigil emblazoned on their chest plates, singling out the members of Aerys Targaryen’s Kingsguard. Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, moved deliberately to meet the oncoming party upon spotting their approach, the hilt of the famous greatsword of House Dayne, Dawn, poking out over his right shoulder. Ser Oswell Whent, who had previously been sharpening his blade with a whet stone while on one knee, got up and quickly followed at Ser Arthur’s side, the bat sigil of House Whent prominently displayed on his helmet. And in between the two strode the White Bull himself, Ser Gerold Hightower, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and still as fierce as ever, despite his advancing years.

As they came upon the trio, Ned motioned his head towards his comrades, signaling for them to dismount. They silently comply and proceed to walk down the path behind him, solidly in lockstep. With him was his captain of the guard Martyn Cassel; faithful Theo Wull; Ethan Glover, who had been Brandon’s squire; Ser Mark Ryswell who was soft of speech and gentle of heart; the crannogman and first to volunteer to accompany Ned on his mission to retrieve his sister, Howland Reed; and Lord Willam Dustin who had proudly ridden here on the great red stallion his wife Lady Barbrey had given to him prior to his departure from the North.

“Lord Stark,” Ser Arthur greeted curtly, giving a sad smile and a small nod in acknowledgement.

“Ser Arthur,” Ned returned. “I did not think to find you three here. I looked for you on the Trident. Why were you not with the Prince?”

“We were not there because our Prince wanted us here,” Ser Gerold coldly states, as if that answered the question. Perhaps it did for him.

“Woe would have befallen the Usurper if we had been, his body lying beneath that river instead” Ser Oswell resolutely interjects. But then a smug, almost wistful smile graced his lips and suddenly adds, “Though it would seem our Prince managed to ensure at least that much in the end, even without us.”

Ned just blinked in confusion, the implication behind Oswell’s words escaping him. “What do you mean by that?” he questioned intensely, irritation and ignorance both evident in his tone.

The three sworn brothers simply look to one another in what appeared to be surprise. It was then that Ser Arthur slowly reached in and took out an unfurled scroll from underneath his breastplate, holding it up to the light of the sun for everyone to see.

“This message came just a few hours before your arrival. Robert Baratheon is dead. Apparently, from the wounds he suffered by Prince Rhaegar at the Trident.” 

He sensed the sharp looks his companions start to give each other, sensed their complete and utter shock along with their uncertainty, but Ned’s eyes could only stare at the scroll hanging limply from Ser Arthur’s hand.

Impossible,” Ned muttered in stunned disbelief. Because it was impossible. Yes, Robert had been grievously injured after Rhaegar’s stab had somehow pierced his armor, where he then proceeded to slash through Robert’s hip during the battle. So much so that they had to postpone Robert’s formal coronation as king, since he had absolutely refused to be humiliatingly crowned on a litter.

But Robert had still been hale, hearty, and vibrantly alive when Ned saw him last! When he wished Ned well upon departing the gates of King’s Landing, despite their recent quarrel over Robert’s handling of the Lannisters for what happened during the sack of the city. Or the night before when he’d desperately pleaded with Ned over drinks to bring Lyanna back to him (while forgetting to remind Ned about lifting the siege on Storm’s End his brother Stannis was still enduring at the time.)

Ned voiced as much. “Robert’s wound was treated! And he was recovering well, before I left! He could even still laugh when we said our goodbyes! How could he simply… die, after all this!? After everything we went through to get here!?  

Again, the Kingsguard simply exchanged glances with one another, now in sudden understanding, before Ser Arthur finally turned his gaze back towards Ned. “It seems likely his wounds took a turn for the worst after your departure. Such things have been known to occur,” he ventured, though shrugging his shoulders to indicate his own uncertainty about events back in the capital.

Ned could only keep shaking his head in denial. “Do you believe it?” he asked, almost accusingly.

He noticed Arthur hesitate briefly before responding. “The news comes from a… knowledgeable source.” To Ned it sounded like he was trying to find a replacement for the word reliable.

Still, whatever Arthur’s misgivings about his supposed source he at least seemed to trust the message’s contents. Briefly, Ned wondered if the Sword of the Morning might be lying; had somehow faked the news to get him to stand down so they could either make their escape or attack the northerners in surprise. But Ned quickly dismissed such thoughts. He knew Arthur by reputation and personally, however brief their previous meeting had been, and he knew neither Arthur nor his sworn brothers would resort to such a desperate trick. Not in a confrontation like this.

Ned stayed quiet for a moment, staring down at the dirt path that lay between the two groups, still trying to process everything that had just been said. Robert, his brother by choice and the King he pledged himself and the North to, was gone. He just couldn’t quite believe it, in truth, even as he was beginning to slowly accept it as an abstract fact. Perhaps the shock had left him numb because he couldn’t feel any sadness at the moment. Grief would likely follow, in time, but for now he simply could not manifest the feeling. Not yet.

Nor could he quite grasp the peripheral thoughts that were just now starting to form in the back of his mind regarding the consequences of this news. Consequences that could see the entire realm thrown into chaos.

It was Arthur who finally brought Ned out of his stupor, with a question that now invaded his every thought.

“So, Lord Stark, in whose name will you march upon us now?”

Ned took a shaky breath, trying to collect himself. It didn't work. Everything still felt like it was spinning. How could the world make so little sense after only a few minutes? And how was he to give an answer to a question he was only just now starting to ask himself?

Suddenly, a sharp, anguished, cry rang out from atop the Tower of Joy. Both groups snapped their heads up towards its direction.

Lyanna! Ned recognized immediately, panic overtaking him. Yet it only lasted for a moment. Slowly, but eventually, her scream brought everything back into focus for Ned, and he felt ashamed.

Here he was, so obsessed over his dead friend that he had completely forgotten about his still living little sister; a sister clearly in pain and who needed him now, unlike Robert who was beyond Ned’s help. He’d deal with Robert’s death another time, for now he would turn his attention back to the present.

Warily, he studied the three Kingsguard members who stood across from him with careful consideration, as they did to him in turn. A deep well of mistrust lied between the two groups who were, strictly speaking, still fighting on opposite sides.

Yet Ned could never muster the same kind of animosity for their enemies as Robert often had, because he knew many of the men they fought against did so out of duty, honor, and loyalty. Something Ned could never blame anyone for, however misguided it was. In fact, their so-called ‘allies’ often disconcerted Ned far more than most of their adversaries had, thinking back again to the Lannisters and memories of the scarlet cloaks with the bloody bodies of dead children wrapped within them.

Now, with Robert, Aerys, and Rhaegar gone, were those left behind even still enemies? Could he risk a confrontation now, despite his group’s advantage in numbers, against three of the greatest knights in the realm? And for what? To avenge the ghosts of his father and brother at the expense of the sister they had died for in the first place?

Brandon had marched into the very halls of the Red Keep over Lyanna, meeting his end in the process, along with their father, while leaving Ned behind to try and carry on after them. Though Ned still felt a similar urgency now as his older brother no doubt had then, he was not Brandon; he could not be so cavalier with his life while others still depended upon him. Abruptly, his thoughts suddenly drifted to Riverrun, to the wife he had barely known and then abruptly left behind. To the son he had never seen but imagined now, cradled in his mother’s arms. A son he might never hold himself if he acted recklessly now.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, finally coming to a decision; still unsure if it was the right one, but with the belief it was the best of those available.

He looked up and straight at the trio then, willing for all the earnest desperation he felt to carry over in his next words. “I come here now as an older brother for the sake of his little sister, Arthur. Please, just let me see Lyanna at least. We can deal with whose side we’re all fighting on and everything else afterwards.”

Arthur’s eyes softened at the familiar use of his first name. For a brief moment they were both brought back outside their encampments at Harrenhall. When a young, shy, and star-struck Ned was first introduced to one of his most revered idols by a raven-haired siren who had enchanted him. A man Ned had wanted to call his brother once upon a time.

Arthur glanced briefly at Ser Gerold, who met and held his gaze for a time, before he slowly nodded in acquiescence. Arthur smiled in gratitude, returning the nod and turned back to Ned.

“You may go up the Tower to see her, along with one other to accompany you if you so wish. Provided of course, that you agree to disarm and leave your weapons behind with your compatriots, while everyone else stays here. I shall do the same and escort you up myself. I will guarantee your safe passage throughout so long as you and yours keep the peace. Do you agree to these terms, Lord Stark?”

Ned simply let out a sigh of relief upon hearing Arthur's proposal. He quickly gave his consent, proceeded to strip his valyrian steel greatsword, Ice, from his belt. He did not fear betrayal, not from these three, and not after they had given him their oath.

As before, Howland was the first to volunteer to go with Ned, which he gratefully accepted as they handed their blades off to Martyn while Ser Arthur did the same with Dawn to Ser Gerold. The Kingsguard stepped aside as Ned and Howland hurried past them and up the tower stairs as Arthur quickly followed in tow.

The climb was long, every step heavy and giving way to one after the other, after the other, as if they would never end. But eventually, Ned began to hear whimpers, and then pants of pain, gradually becoming louder and louder with each new step they took. As they begin to draw closer to the source of these sounds, Ned’s fearful mind irrationally started to return to the memories of Robert’s tirades against Rhaegar over the past year, about how he would make that ‘dragon whoreson’ pay for all the horrors he was no doubt subjecting Lyanna to.

Ned banished these thoughts almost immediately however, he was done lying to himself like he suspected Robert had all along. When his grief had started to wane as the war had, when he finally had a chance to really think back to those days at Harrenhall, Ned proceeded to blame himself for not recognizing the signs sooner, for the horrible dread he now felt at the implications. No, these cries were not torture, he could not believe such a thing of Arthur and the others. This was something else…

Finally, they at last reached the end of the stairwell, a single wooden door in front of them which Ned promptly burst right through. He was met with a startled chorus of surprised cries from several different women, mixed with agonized groans coming from the center of the room.

Ned stared at the sight. His sister, bedridden, and taking several pained breathes as she laid there. Immediately, he went to her side, dropping down on one knee to bring himself level with her, and grabbed her glossy hand in frightened concern.

Her eyes fluttered open and she tilted her face so she could meet his own desperate ones.

“Ned…?” she asked in dazed wonderment and disbelief “Is that really you…? I’m… I’m not dreaming am I?”

“No Lyanna, I’m here. It’s not a dream” Ned answers, his voice wrecked.

She nodded, slowly but happily, to confirm that she heard him. “I missed you big brother,” she said softly, giving him a smile despite the obvious pain. Her smile quickly disappeared though, her voice filled with trepidation as she asked, “Is it…. Is it true? Is Robert… dead?”

Ned looked back blankly, the earnest hope etched within her question caught him off guard. “Ye-Yes… I believe so.”

“Oh thank the Gods!” Lyanna sobbed in relief, turning away from him to look up at the ceiling as though her prayers had just been answered. Perhaps they had been.

Her response made Ned wince. To see his sister so happy at the news of her betrothed and his best friend’s death, a man who’d loved her desperately and went to war in order to win her back, it pained him more than when he had actually heard of Robert’s passing. Again, he questioned how he could have been so willfully blind to not have seen the signs before now.

“Hoh!” she yelled suddenly, shaking him out of his melancholy as he felt the vice of her grip digging into his hand.

“Lyanna, what’s wrong?!” he questioned. Panic overtook him as he scanned her body to try and find the source of her anguish. Then his eyes went wide as they landed on the large bulge pushing out from beneath the blankets.

“Is… Is that…?” Ned stammered in shock, comprehension now dawning. She was pregnant. And the father could only be…

“Yes!” she gasped, “It’s his-our child Ned.” She breathed a few more shattered breaths, trying to calm her speech before she pulled at his hand to bring his gaze back to her face, her voice was pleading and remorseful. “We ran away and married Ned, Rhaegar didn’t kidnap me! Brandon and Father… they didn’t need to die! We didn’t think… and when we finally heard what had happened to them it was already too late! You’d called the banners and planned to overthrow all the Targaryens, not just Aerys. I was already pregnant and Rhaegar and I both knew Robert and the other lords would never forgive us for what we’d done... for what we had put everyone through,” she finishes in shame.

Ned looked down in utter despair, groaning in anguish. All his worst fears had been realized. Everything he’d done, everything their family had suffered, everything they had put the realm through, had been for nothing. Because of the actions of one irrational tyrant and a misunderstanding caused by two people in love. He wanted to cry and then laugh at the cruel irony the gods played their games with.

“Ahhhh!” Lyanna screamed suddenly, writhing now as the women around them came up to her, placing a wet towel on her head while drawing her blanket up now and preparing fresh water basins. Ned frantically turned to Arthur standing near the doorway. “Where’s your Maester, Arthur?! My sister needs help!”

Arthur only scowled and looked away, muttering in regret. “We couldn’t afford anyone learning of our location or about what was really happening here, which they would have if their household Maesters had suddenly disappeared. I didn’t even tell my own family everything that was going on when I had these nursemaids quietly smuggled away.”

He sighed, before looking back at Ned, trying to instill some reassurance with his next words. “The women here are all experienced with childbirth, and we’ve done everything we can to gather whatever supplies were needed. All we can do for her now is to pray and wait, Eddard.”

Wait. He had waited for news from his father after he had sent word that he was going to the capital to bring Brandon back. And after waiting he learned neither one of them would be coming back instead. He’d felt just as helpless and useless then as he did now. His eyes returned to Lyanna, frustrated tears welling up as he held her hand tightly and whispered reassurances to her, praying that the Old Gods would hear him in this desolate landscape devoid of any heart trees; praying they wouldn’t take away another member of his family.

Again, he waited.

 

*******

 

The sheets were stained red. Tears had replaced the cries of elation that had filled the room only moments ago. It had all started so hopefully at first; the initial soft wails as the infant’s head appeared; the excited anticipation as its body was just passing through the final hurdle; and the jubilation as one of the maids shouted at last, “It’s a boy!”

The happiness soon died though.

Something seemed to rupture at the last minute.

And then the blood began to spill.

The nursemaids had desperately pressed down with bloodied rags to try and stop the flow. Howland Reed even interceded, using his knowledge of plants he’d gained from living in the Neck he had tried mashing together a salve of various herbs lying around and applied it to as many affected areas as he could find

None of it worked though. She just kept bleeding.

Finally, mercifully, the bleeding seemed to stop at last. But Lyanna’s breathing turned erratic, haggard, and she started to shudder. Her hands became cold and clammy to Ned’s touch and she soon voiced delirious complaints of thirst. Ned quickly touched her head only to recoil at the sudden heat. The maids brought Lyanna water, trying to coax her to drink while Ned pressed down on the cold and wet rag atop her forehead, whispering that everything was going to be alright.

“I want to be brave…” Lyanna said timidly, for the first time Ned could ever remember.

“You are,” Ned tried to reassure.

She shook her head at that. “I’m not. I don’t want to die...”

“You’re not going to die!” he denied fiercely. A lie, he knew. For himself and for her, even as he refused to accept it.

Ned wildly turned his gaze back towards Arthur, who shared the same look of helpless remorse, and started to rise, desperately pleading “Arthur please! You can still ride out and find a maester! Bring them back before it’s too la-!”

“No, no Ned!” Lyanna suddenly interrupted

“You have to listen to me-just stop and listen to me, please!” She tightened her grip on his hand and tried to pull Ned back towards her, weakly raising herself up and leaning slightly to his right. Reluctantly, Ned lowered himself back down to hear her soft whispers.

“His name… is Aegon Targaryen. When the other lords find out who he is they’ll come for him. You know they will. They’ll tear him apart with their game and take everything from him. You have to protect him. Please protect him…” She turned away slightly to look past his shoulder and tilted her head, signaling for the wet nurse who stood behind him to bring the child to them.

Obediently, the woman kneeled and placed the child in Ned’s free arm, held securely against his chest. His lips trembled at the tiny figure, the infant slowly opened his eyes to the sight of Ned’s face.

“Promise me, Ned,” she implored. “Promise me.”

Mutely Ned turned away from his newborn nephew to meet his sister’s gaze once again. He nodded, his voice hoarse as he finally answered. “I promise Lyanna. I swear I’ll protect him for you, always.”

Lyanna broke out into a relieved smile, nodding in gratitude. She then reached across with her other hand to touch the child’s soft cheek for a brief moment, a groan of regret escaping from her lips, before she pulled away and turning to the nightstand next to her bedside.

She reached for the crown of winter roses that lay there.

With great effort Lyanna managed to pull the flowers to her chest, and closed her eyes, taking several slow, deep, breaths, inhaling their scent. And then a few, agonizing, moments later, she stopped breathing at all.

Everyone cried after that.

Ned felt as her grip slowly slacked in his hand, and then finally went limp, heartbroken as it becomes clear his prayers had all been for naught once again. After a long moment, he finally let go, letting her arm fall back onto her chest, petals from the winter roses scattering across the bed in its wake.

He turned away from her lifeless form, pulling his nephew into his shoulder, and cried into the sleepy child. He listened to his steady breathing and felt the slight rhythmic pulse of the babe’s tiny heartbeat. He poured out his grief, his despair, and his anguish, trying to take comfort in the warmth secured next to him, wanting desperately to feel life now that death had claimed another one he loved.

He stood there and wept for a long time.

Slowly though, his mind finally started to turn again, and he began to calm. He started to hear Lyanna’s last words over and over again, and his thoughts whirled at the implications. She was right. The lords of the realm would come for her son. He was not safe, even without the threat of Robert’s wrath hanging over his head. They would come in order to use him, manipulate him, and pit him against one another like some kind of game piece. They’d try to control him in order to further their own positions and power, or dispose of him if he proved to be an obstacle to such ambition. Just as Tywin had done before with the babe's siblings on Robert’s behalf.

Siblings he wrapped in bloody red cloaks like presents.

The image seized Ned and caused his whole body to tense. Instinctively, he tightened his hold on the babe, allowing a fierce sense of protectiveness to wrap itself around him. His grip caused Aegon to fuss a bit in response though. Ned immediately loosens it, before bringing the boy back into the crock of his arms while whispering soft apologies amidst his tears.

But his dark thoughts do not leave him.

He could not let that happen again. Would not let it happen to this boy who looked back at him with dark gray eyes that marked those with the blood of House Stark. Lyanna’s eyes.

He shuddered at the thought, however. Because he knew exactly where this line of thinking would inevitably lead him. Back down a road that he had done everything to avoid when it first presented itself to him. When he walked through the halls of the Red Keep, the same halls his father and brother had died in.

He had found Jaimie Lannister there, lazily sitting on the Iron Throne, Aerys’ body collapsed in a pool of blood at the base of its steps. Upon seeing the Lord of Winterfell the Kingslayer had tried to casually play off his insolent display as saving the seat for Robert. Yet, as he got up and descended down those bloody steps Ned could see the mocking smile that contained his unspoken taunt; unless you mean to take it for yourself. Staring at that monstrous chair which looked so much like a gaping maw, Ned had never been more desperate to flee from another room in his life.

And yet… and yet, even as the barbed swords of the Iron Throne could mercilessly consume those who sat upon it, its metal jaws might also be the only thing capable of shielding this boy with the greatest blood right to that throne.

And, though it is a distant, if related thought to his immediate concern over the boy’s well-being, he thinks back to his previous contemplation's about the chaos that would soon sweep the realm after news of Robert’s death spread.

Without a clear successor or leader to rally behind the Seven Kingdoms could fracture, the Rebellion spilling out into a chaotic free-for-all of anarchy and civil war as the various lords carved the country up for themselves. That scenario would endanger everyone, not just Aegon or Ned’s family, and had to be avoided at all cost.

It would be a terrible burden to bear. Not just for Ned, but for this child as well once he grew into his majority. If he managed to grow up at all. The vultures would circle around him for the rest of his life, constantly testing him for any signs of weakness and pouncing if they ever found one.

Yet Ned could see no other option now. His nephew’s fate would always be tied to the Iron Throne, whether he sat upon it or not. And to not sit on it now would deprive him the use of the power and fear it commanded, even as the envy and greed it garnered remained. And Ned could not hope to fend off either of those unless he himself was in an actual position of strength to help his nephew.

“What will you do now, Eddard?” Arthur asked quietly once Ned’s sobs finally began to ebb.

After taking a final, ragged breath Ned looked up at last towards the Sword of the Morning and answers, newfound resolution burning in his eyes.

“Keep my promise."

 

Chapter Text

They arrived at Starfall nearly a week after Lyanna’s passing. The hard ride and sparse breaks were difficult on everyone, the little prince most of all. Whether in their supply cart with the women, or strapped onto the backs of the men, the constant ups, downs, and sudden jerks to a halt had him fussing and crying constantly in protest at the upheaval to his little world. Yet still, they rode.

Hopefully things would be easier on the lad once they had secured transportation to Oldtown, though Ned was doubtful the swaying of a ship out on the sea would do much to improve the boy’s poor disposition.

Had they the time, Ned would have preferred taking a more moderate pace, back along the roads north that he and his Northerners had initially traveled upon. But there was simply none to spare, events back in King’s Landing would be moving fast, and there were few places where they could reliably take Prince Aegon to. So they pressed on, regardless of their growing fatigue.

Thinking about his nephew’s name helped take Ned’s mind off his physical pain and drift to more amusing reveries. At the time, he’d wondered why Lyanna would choose to name the boy after his deceased brother, and recalled Arthur’s reaction when he finally voiced his curiosity.

Arthur’s jaw clenched grimly at the sudden reminder of the fate of Princess Elia and her children, but managed to keep his voice composed as he explained. “It was Prince Rhaegar’s wish to have at least one son named Aegon, it was of vital importance to him in fact. After news reached us about… what had happened at the capital, I hazard to guess Princess Lyanna decided she wanted to honor that wish, along with the memory of the Prince's late brother as well.”

Ned had openly questioned why having a son named Aegon was such a priority for Rhaegar, but Arthur simply gave him an ambiguous shrug in return. Ned was somewhat skeptical that Arthur wasn’t aware of the exact reason why, everyone in the realm knew of how close he had been to the late prince, but chose not to press the matter. Whatever his sister’s motives, Ned’s promise to her took precedence, which had the effect of making him paranoid about the need for secrecy until they were ready to formally announce his nephew’s existence to the Realm. So much so that Ned had insisted on giving the lad a false name for the duration of their journey.

That had caused some difficulty amongst the group over the first few days, as the Kingsguard had wanted one that was at least related to the boy’s real name in some form, so that they might ‘preserve his royal dignity,’ much to the derision of Ned’s northern followers. The simplest solution would have been to use his great-great-grandfather Aegon V’s nickname, Egg, who had used it during his own travels throughout the Seven Kingdoms. The former King was also well regarded in the North after his visit there as the squire of Ser Duncan the Tall, and for his relief efforts on the region’s behalf during his later reign, so it seemed a logical choice to make. But the tuff of dark, swirly hair atop the boy's crown had conjured images of an egg gone to rot instead, unlike Aegon V’s, shiny shaved head at the time.

The Northerners had tossed out other suggestions, with all the blunt, insensitive, brevity they were known for. Peg, Leg, Beg, Keg… all of which were met with increasingly growing scowls and disapproving glares from amongst both the women and sworn brothers. Northern crudeness was never much appreciated in the south.

The arguments only aggravated Ned’s headaches, which caused him to wonder how he could ever secure the boy’s rule if he couldn’t even give him a new name of all things! Not for the first time, he had wished Jon Arryn was here, his foster father always had a gift for reconciling people’s differences.

And then it hit him. Jon!

They had all been so focused on the first part of the lad’s name that they had completely forgotten about its second part, gon, which wasn't even nearly so large a leap as Eddard was to Ned. And what better name to shield his nephew than that of the man who had shielded Ned from the threat of the Mad King? He’d voiced his suggestion and quickly began to build a consensus from all the parties after Arthur noted the name was also shared by Rhaegar’s close friend, Jon Connigton. Though it was also just as likely that everyone was simply tired of continuing the discussion anyway. The babe himself sneezed when presented with the new name, which they all took as a sign of approval, and there were no further objections after that.

 

*****

 

The sun was setting upon their approach to Starfall, the ancient seat of House Dayne. Ned had finally unfurled the royal banner the Kingsguard secretly carried with them so as to announce their arrival, with Arthur carrying it at the front of their column. Upon his sighting much of the Dayne household almost immediately emptied out of the castle to greet them while their group was still crossing the stone bridge that stretched across the breadth of the Torrentine River, directly to the island stronghold.

When they finally reached the castles main gatehouse they were met by the figure of the oldest Dayne sibling and the Lord of Starfall, Auron Dayne. Standing behind him was his House’s entire honor guard who carried House Dayne’s unique lavender banners, the image of a white sword crossing a falling star blazoned on to the fabric.

Arthur quickly dismounted from his horse and strode right into his elder brother’s warm embrace. Their whispers were too soft for Ned to make out, but he imagined they resembled something close to relief. He found himself envious of Arthur at that moment, the sight of the two siblings another keen reminder of Brandon’s absence. But another part of him was also strangely comforted as well, knowing that at least one family had been spared the same kind of pain and loss Ned’s had endured. Perhaps he might yet be able to do the same for more. It was probably the only upside regarding the debacle he was preparing to wade into back in King’s Landing. Though it was far more likely he’d only become personally responsible for such devastation instead. He mentally pushed aside that depressing end note.

Eventually, the brothers separated, and Ned saw Auron lean sideways slightly, looking past Arthur’s shoulder to see the makeup of the company he was traveling with. He raised an eyebrow at the sight, especially when his eyes fell upon Ned. They had never met before, but Ned could tell Lord Auron recognized him. The Stark look was famous in its own right, and Ned was sure Auron had made himself very familiar with those features given… everything that had happened at Harrenhall between their two families.

Some more words were exchanged between the brothers, Arthur likely giving him a brief summation of the situation, and after a short moment of hesitation the Lord of Starfall finally nodded in acquiescence, signaling for the guards to clear the way and welcome their guests inside the keep with full honors.

Exhausted, the group quickly dismounted and unladed their horses of their belongings once they entered the castle courtyard, handing them off along with their steeds to the onrushing servants before being swept into Starfalls great hall for a more formal reception and a hasty meal.

The evening supper that followed was lengthy and rambunctious, as Northerners were want to do, especially after a long and uncomfortable journey. Things had started out rather awkwardly at first, but the Northerners quickly broke through the silent impasse, deciding to pay no mind to whatever side anyone was previously on, not when there were drinks to be had and meat to be carved.

Their manners, while usually offensive for most southerners, seemed to relax their Dornish hosts instead, and soon enough both groups were even engaging in a contest to see who could stomach eating the most amount of Dornish peppers before either giving in or passing out.

Needless to say, the Northerners had many unconscious bodies lying about now, being far too stubborn to actually give in and admit the unthinkable, that the skinny little Dornish might actually be tougher than the proud men of the North at something! Scarce a thing could even be imagined, let alone uttered! Not like pesky trivialities, such as their obvious disadvantage in how used to Dornish cuisine they were by comparison, actually mattered. And so, for the sake of northern honor, many of Ned’s men ended up sacrificing all feeling in their mouths while their faces planted themselves right into the floor. All of this before they’d even had their fill of ale, which might have been a first for any Northerner at a feast, now that Ned thought about it.

Ned himself was afforded a seat at the high table, as befitting his rank and as the northern representative, alongside Arthur, Lord Auron, his wife, and even their youngest sister Allyria, though Ned couldn’t help but notice the distinct absence of the last member of the Dayne family. Not that he couldn’t understand her particular reluctance to join this impromptu gathering, with him here and all, even as he felt the onset of disappointment, which he promptly washed away with a swig of Dornish wine. He would take Lord Auron’s cue and stop asking questions he already knew the answers to, he decided.

Ser Gerold chose to abstain from his own rightful place at the high table, instead joining in the merriment with Ser Oswell down below with the other members of House Dayne and the Northerners. Perhaps he was using the opportunity to finally get to know his new traveling companions after days of only curt one-word exchanges and awkward silence. Surprisingly, he too entered the spice eating contest, and by its end he remained as implacable and stone-faced as he had been at the start, even as others passed out while foaming at the mouth all around him. And so it was the Lord Commander, not the Northerners nor the Dornish ironically, who was ultimately declared the victor by default, as he remained the only one still standing upright by the end, and a new legend was added to his luster that night.

All of this passed before Ned‘s amused eyes, the first he had felt since they had left that accursed tower behind. Lord Auron had been polite and brief during their conversation over dinner, dancing around any sensitive topics. Like not even questioning the presence of the young baby boy that Arthur had quickly shooed off with his female minders into the castle’s nursery for the night. That told Ned everything he needed to know however. Despite Arthur’s previous protest about the need for secrecy before, Ned was not surprised the Lord of Starfall had manage to piece everything together, especially given House Dayne’s missing nursemaids had suddenly turned up right alongside Ned and his brother.

Ned was grateful for the courtesy, and more than willing to trust Arthur to explain the events of the last few weeks to his older brother privately, while also confident Arthur would gloss over any details regarding their future plans. The Sword of the Morning fully understood that they could not afford to give anything away, not even to his own family. Not until they were ready, at least.

Eventually, Ned managed to excuse himself for the evening, getting up and exiting the great hall, while tip toeing over the unconscious bodies laid out upon the floor along the way. He had already received permission to use Starfall’s rookery and Lord Auron’s personal study and proceeded to immediately get to work once he was secured in the privacy of the room. He had some important letters to write tonight.

The first, he addressed to Jon Arryn, letting him know that he was alright and that he had heard about what happened to Robert. Ned left out the details of his nephew and the new accord he’d reached with the Kingsguard, that was too risky to send by raven, but did request for Jon to gather all the lords of the realm together at the capital, and to keep them occupied there until Ned returned, indicating he had an important announcement to make.

He also told Jon to issue an immediate request for an armistice with Dragonstone. He knew Queen Rhaella had already crowned her youngest son, Prince Viserys, as King, and that they still held command over the Royal Fleet from the Targaryen’s ancestral island stronghold. From there, they had a strangle hold on sea traffic in and out of Blackwater Bay, and could potentially rally other dissidents, such as Dorne, should they be allowed to linger. The rebels needed to avoid any further outbreaks of hostilities with his nephew’s remaining family members, until Ned could send them a proper explanation from King’s Landing himself. The situation was far too delicate as things currently stood.

The second and third letters, he sent to his good-father Lord Hoster Tully and his wife Lady Catelyn respectively back at Riverrun. Essentially, he reassured them both that he was well, and instructed that they journey to and await him at the capital, along with his newborn son. To Lord Hoster, he explained he would be receiving a similar missive from Jon Arryn and that he should immediately summon the Riverlords to accompany him.

While penning Catelyn’s letter however, Ned hesitated. He would often pause mid-sentence, his quill hovering just above the parchment, before crumpling it up and tossing the paper aside to start anew. He had never been very good with words, unlike Brandon, who could be both brash and charming all at once. He did not know how to flatter or soothe a new wife he barely even knew and hadn’t seen for over half a year. Frustrated, he shook his head and decided to simply write what he wanted. Primarily, what he wanted was to know about their son. He asked after their health, that he hoped the birth had not been difficult on her and that she and the babe were well and whole. He told her he could not wait to hold the boy in his arms, to see what he looked like with his own eyes, assuring her that he had a name for him already in mind which he hoped she would find agreeable, and that he would teach their son all about his Stark heritage as she would undoubtedly regale him about his Tully one. To Catelyn herself, he promised that whatever the current confusion and uncertainty she must have heard in the wake of the Rebellion, he would do everything to ensure it would be concluded, and that he would keep them safe above anything else. He finished by writing that they would be reunited soon, and hopefully for good, before finally signing and sealing it.

Finished at last, Ned leaned back into the chair, bringing his hands together to rub the bridge of his nose in exhaustion. The last portion he had written filled him with trepidation and fear, as he had no real idea as to how he would actually accomplish his promise. To Catelyn or his sister. He had only a half-formed plan, while all the various details and potential outcomes had yet to be figured out. Just contemplating it all was threatening to spill them right out of his head. And all this, he needed to do as soon as absolutely possible, if he had any chance of salvaging the situation in time. It was utterly overwhelming to think about.

Abruptly he got out of his chair, carrying the letters personally to Starfall’s maester, watching carefully as the elderly man sent the ravens out, until their forms disappeared into the horizon. Afterwards, he made his way directly towards the nursery. He wanted to check on his nephew, as much for himself as for the boy’s sake. He was Ned’s motivation now, his promise to his mother, and seeing the lad would hopefully alleviate some of the pressure he felt building in his chest.

Arriving just in front of the door, Ned knocked quietly, knowing the boy was likely being fed by his wetnurse, Wylla now. A quiet “Come in” follows, and Ned excused himself as he opened the door, only to be stopped dead in his tracks.

There, sitting in a rocking chair next to a crib in the middle of the room, was Lady Ashara Dayne, the top half of her already scandalously thin, sheer purple dress dropped to below her waist, with her bare breasts completely out on display for Ned’s gaze, and a suckling young prince who eagerly latched on to one. She did not look the slightest bit abashed when she finally met Ned’s eyes.

“Hello Ned. It’s been some time, hasn’t it?”

 “A-Ah-Ashara?” Ned stammered. “W-wh-why are you…?”

“Feeding the prince?” she finished helpfully for him, clearly enjoying the sight of his discomfort, although that was only the second question on Ned’s mind at the moment.

Instead, deciding to follow Ashara’s lead in the conversation for now, while pointedly trying to avoid looking at anything but her face, Ned asked, “Where is Wylla? It’s her job to be feeding Jon, not a highborn lady’s.”

At the sound of the boy’s false name, Ashara raised an eyebrow, peering down at his suckling form, but continued unabated with her task, while calmly explaining, “I told Wylla and the others that I would care for... ‘Jon’ this evening and instructed them to take the night off and get some rest. The fast pace you set to get here wore their bodies out, and left them thoroughly exhausted. Of course they protested, with much the same reasoning as you, but I kept insisting and they really were quite tired, too much so to continue the argument, especially with one of their own household’s ladies.”

Ned grimaced upon hearing that, which she returned with a serene smile. He would have to rethink his initial guard arrangements next time. Deliberately depriving Jon of them so as to not draw suspicion regarding his true identity could have been disastrous if the next person who managed to get his nephew alone meant him harm instead.

“Do not fret so if the boy’s safety is your concern, Ned,” Ashara said lightly, reading his thoughts easily. “He is quite safe here in Starfall. I and my household certainly bear no ill will towards him. Wylla and the other ladies know this, and it’s why they’re willing to trust me with his care. They’re very diligent I assure you, in fact they’re all sleeping in the adjacent room, ready to jump at a moment’s notice to his side at the slightest hint of distress. Which they’ve done three times already, I might add, despite my orders to go to bed,” Ashara finishes with both mild annoyance and amusement.

“How do you even know who he is?” Ned persisted. “You did not come to greet us upon our arrival so Lord Auron could not have told you, and I had every one of our company sworn to secrecy.”

“I was watching your progression from my window, of course. And come now Ned, you didn’t really think my brother and I wouldn’t put all the pieces together did you?” Ashara chastised. Ned could only scowl in response as he couldn’t deny her assertion, he had just been thinking the same thing regarding her oldest brother. He should have realized Ashara would eventually do likewise if given the same information. Her next words proceed to confirm as much.

“How could we have failed to notice so many of our Houses’ nursemaids suddenly take leave and then simply vanish afterwards? And all shortly after Arthur had paid us a visit? Why do you think my brother Auron was so prepared to simply welcome you all in with so few questions asked? Arthur may not have explicitly told us anything, but neither did he really hide it from us either. I imagine he expected he would need to call upon us soon, to make his escape after this child was born.”

Ashara suddenly paused for a moment, seemingly hesitating, before continuing forward, her face resolute. “Admittedly we were surprised to see you and your Northerners with him, alongside the rest of the Kingsguard. When I saw your number among them, I… felt conflicted about coming to greet you openly, so I decided to help Wylla and the others with the care of Jon here, in the meantime.”

A loud smack suddenly interrupted her, and they both looked down (carefully in Ned’s case) as Jon finally released Ashara’s nipple, having finished his meal at last. He then proceeded to settle snuggly into her arms with a sleepy and content look on his face. Smiling at the sight, Ashara cooed at the little prince, humming a soft melody as she finally pulled the straps of her dress back up over to her shoulders before gently placing the gurgling baby back into his crib.

Eventually, Ashara raised her head to face Ned once again. With no more distractions, Ned could finally focus his vision on her entire form. Briefly scanning her figure, he found her still as lovely as she had always been. Even with her breasts now covered (if barely), she still retained the same full figure as before, with her luscious dark, raven hair running down along her exposed back, and those haunting violet eyes that had so entrapped a younger and (shockingly) even more withdrawn Ned. They still could, if he was being honest with himself.

As he took a closer look however, he found small, disturbing details that gave him pause. She was slightly thinner now then he remembered. Her usually flush cheeks seemed a bit hollower. Combined with her pale white skin she appeared almost ethereal, like she could disappear at any moment, leaving behind that dress, despite how it hugged her curves still. Suddenly, Ned felt an onset of panic as he wondered if feeding Jon may have put an even greater strain on her health.

His concern must have been plain on his face, for Ashara simply shook her head in bemused exasperation upon seeing it. “Still always worrying about everyone else Ned, even though I can only imagine the turmoil you’ve been through these past few days. It’s your most attractive quality, but you should be mindful about being too overbearing sometimes, and to take care of your own self as well.”

Ned ignored her teasing, undaunted by her apparent deflection and took a step towards her.

“Ashara, are you alright? You seem unwell, compared to when I saw you last. I can call a servant to bring you something to ea-”

“I can call for my own household’s servants, thank you very much Lord Stark,” she replies tersely now.

Ned abruptly halted, pulling his attempted step back, before straightening himself. “My apologies if I offended you, my lady.”

For a moment, Ashara simply eyed Ned pointedly, before she eventually softened her gaze and finally let out a sigh.

“No, it’s fine Ned. I’m not about to fall over and pass out on the floor as so many of your Northerners have done tonight,” she jested, smiling now, though a sad and melancholic one. “I’ve simply had a lot of matters of my own to think about over this past year.” The statement seems dismissive, but for a minute, Ned thought he almost heard hints of strain. And a plea for help.

Ned struggles for a moment, internally debating if it was appropriate for him to offer what she seemed to be inviting. Finally, shaking his doubts off, he voices it. “I do not know if you would wish to tell someone like me what troubles you so my lady, but I am willing to listen, if you believe it would help. My promise back then still holds, even now.”

Ashara gave him a secret, knowing, smile and appears pleased, though strangely not surprised. Closing her eyes, she inclines her head in gratitude and acceptance, inviting him to bring another chair over from the corner while resuming her previous seat. Ned settles himself into its wooden frame before returning his attention towards her. Leaning back, he waits patiently for Ashara to begin. 

“The recent years have been… difficult for everyone, as I’m sure you know all too well, Ned. For myself however, I too had reason to mourn for all those lost in this senseless war, Princess Elia and her children most especially.”

Ned simply remained quiet, and attentive, but inside he felt his gut begin to wrench. He remembered very well how close Ashara had been to the late Princess, serving as her handmaiden by the time of the tourney when they first met. She had spoken fondly of their shared childhoods together with him on a number of occasions back then. And once again, the guilt over the fate of her children sent a stab through his chest. I will make that right he promises silently, grimly, both to her and to the spirit of Princess Elia, though he could not voice such plans aloud. Not yet anyway.

He took notice of her hands then, idly moving across her body as she spoke, before they eventually settled upon her abdomen, where she unconsciously began to rub them along her stomach. Or perhaps it was intentional, as her next words bring Ned’s thoughts to a crashing halt.

“It made me mourn for the child I lost all over again. And for all the children I shall never have,” she said suddenly, her voice devoid of any hint of emotion. Yet he could see she was on the verge of breaking.

Ned’s eyes instantly widened, completely in shock. He hadn’t known, had never even begun to suspect after the letter informing him of her miscarriage had finally arrived at the Eyrie. Abruptly, he got out of his chair to kneel in front of her and, before he could even think about the propriety of his next action, extended his hand out to her in comfort.

She startled initially at the gesture, appearing conflicted, but eventually, hesitantly, she reaches out and accepts it, running her own, delicate fingers along the outline of his large palm and rough callouses, before settling into his firm grip. Ned cuped them together with his other hand, squeezing gently in emphatic remorse.

“Ashara, I am so, so sorry. I had no idea that even occurred. Your letter gave me no indication. Had I known I-I would hav-," he cut himself off, suddenly realizing how foolish he sounded right now. What exactly would he have done had he known? He was still the same coward as he had been at Harrenhall, when he had turned away from her the first time. When he had meekly accepted his brother’s apology for his betrayal at the insistence of their father upon returning to Winterfell.

Unexpectedly, she chuckled at his reaction. “And why should you have Ned? No one outside of my family does, as I had intended, after all. It wasn’t your burden to know, though I appreciate the sentiment.”

For a moment, Ned didn’t know what to say, so he simply said nothing at all. But a question continued to persist in the back of his mind, one his conscious demanded an answer for, even as he feared hearing it. So he asks.

“Did… did Brandon know?”

At that, she let out a harsh, sharp laugh. “If he didn’t care enough to learn about his own child in the first place, why should he know what trying to birth it cost me, Ned? No, I didn’t want nor need his insincere pity. It would have done me no good, and I’m sure I would have only thrown it back into his face had I seen him.” 

She pat his hand on top of her own, before extracting it from his grip, getting up from her chair to stroll over to the nearby window.  She opens its frame, and leans against the ledge, looking out on to a beautiful, star-filled night sky this evening. Concerned, Ned had followed after her, though maintained a respectable distance once she finally came to a stop.

“I hear you’re married now,” she says suddenly, her voice quiet.

Ned’s body suddenly tightens in surprise. And nervousness. “Yes,” he answers simply, his tone tense.

“To Brandon’s betrothed no less. My belated congratulations to you both. I must say though, Lady Catelyn certainly seems to have the Gods on her side. To lose one Stark only to gain the better one in exchange.” With Ashara’s back to him Ned could not make out the features of her face as she speaks, but her voice carries the unmistakable bitterness.

“Lady Catelyn was as devastated as us all upon hearing word of Brandon’s death, Ashara!” Ned objected vehemently, even as he felt a twinge of depression for himself for acknowledging how true that statement was. “I hardly think it appropriate of you to make light of her grief or to think I could suddenly replace him in her heart!” I cannot even replace him in mine, whispered a small corner of his soul.

None of this had been meant for Ned. Not Brandon’s wife, not Winterfell, nor the responsibility as the head of their House and leader of the North. He did not know how he would ever be able to shoulder Brandon’s mantle, much less the one awaiting him in King’s Landing.

Ashara promptly broke him of his brooding thoughts with an unsympathetic tone. “Then she will realize her good fortune soon enough, as I do now, provided she isn’t a fool. Brandon would have been a terrible husband, Ned,” she states with hot, certain, finality.

She finally turned back to face him, her violet eyes hard as the steel gray of his own now, and flips a loose strand of dark hair behind her ear in defiance. “Do not mistake me, Ned. I did not lie when I said I mourned for those lost in this awful conflict, and that includes your brother. I do not wish Brandon’s fate on anyone. What happened to him was monstrous, and I pray that he manages to find peace after suffering such unspeakable horrors, along with your father. Yet that is separate from whether or not he would have made a good husband. And you cannot deny what he was, least of all to me.” She finished that last sentence with a hint of challenge, as if daring him to contradict her.

Ned could only turn away from her gaze in shame. Not for the first time, he felt his resentment for Brandon begin to bubble up. Resentment over all that his brother had wrought and left behind that needed be cleaned up now, along with the simultaneously ingrained guilt for thinking so poorly of him. But that now conflicted with the faint hint of an emotion towards Brandon he thought he had buried back in Harrenhall. Anger. Anger for all of his brother’s poor choices and excuses, with no hint of care for the consequences or how they affected those around him.

Whatever Robert’s faults, the one thing that had always made Ned forgive him was that he at least owned and admitted his mistakes, even feeling shame for them from time to time. Brandon never seemed to believe he had made a mistake in his life.

Seeing the conflicted turmoil on Ned’s face, Ashara decided to finally spare him. “I don’t regret learning the truth about him Ned, however difficult it was. My only regret is, that unlike Lady Catelyn, I actually had a choice about which Stark I could have had. And I chose wrong.”

That sent Ned sputtering. “Ashar-“

“I’ve wanted to apologize to you, ever since Harrenhall, Ned. For everything.”

Ned’s eyes went wide again at that. Only now does he realize this had been Ashara’s intention all along, what she had been working this conversation up towards this entire time.

“There’s nothing to forgive, my lady. I presumed too muc-” but his protest soon dies on his lips.

She shook her head violently, adamant when she interrupts. “You didn’t presume anything, Ned. I could tell how you felt the moment we first me, and I led you on anyway. I dismissed you like it was nothing. I was so blinded by my infatuation with Brandon’s charms that I used you, when you didn’t deserve any of it!” she exclaims hysterically, her voice raw with emotion and self-loathing.   

Ned’s heart pulled at the sight of her breaking down before him, at the memories which still haunted them both, aching for her and for himself as well. He would be lying if he said he hadn’t resented her at the time, wasn’t mortified at how gullible he had been. But whatever else he felt, he’d known upon seeing her reaction to his discovery that this hadn’t been some casual dalliance or game on her part. She had genuinely loved his brother. And he could never fault such honesty. How could he, after what had happened with Lyanna? Even if it did lead them both down paths he wished they had never walked.

“There’s nothing to forgive, Ashara,” Ned finally reiterated, this time with calm reassurance. “You followed your heart back then, and I would not have forced you to change it simply because it was not where I wanted it to go. You may have made the wrong choices by doing so, and it’s not in my power to release you from every regret you may have. No more than I could for my own sister, were she still with us, however much I might want to. But, at least know that what I can forgive, I do.”

Ashara looked completely lost by his declaration. Her voice hitches inside her throat, her hand raised and placed on top of it now, as tears begin to well up around her deep, purple eyes. Catching herself however, she quickly sniffles and rubs the intrusive liquid away, attempting to regain her composure. Her voice is still shaky however, when she finally speaks. “I hope I deserve it someday.”

Feeling awkward now, they looked away in opposite directions from one another, trying to settle the roiling swirl of emotions churning inside both of them at that moment. When Ashara managed to finally calm down however, her posture seemed straighter, and her eyes a bit brighter as she brings them back to face his again. When she spoke, her voice is calm, and her smile serene once more.

“My apology was actually only one of the things I wanted to say to you, Ned. I also wanted to thank you, as well. For you and Arthur deciding not to kill one another. I know not everyone would have in your place.” Like Brandon went unspoken between them.

Ned, surprisingly, chuckles, recalling his own thoughts from that moment now. “I’m not sure you had very much to worry about Ashara. Arthur was far more likely to kill me in such an exchange than I him.”

“And I would have wept regardless,” her face completely serious as she said so.

Ned blinked, his mouth parts open slightly. He didn’t know what to say in response to that, so he just let it hang in the air, standing there like some dumb mute. The earnest look in her violet eyes caused him to turn away.

“Asha-“he finally began after a moment of awkward silence, but she interrupted again, determined not to let him stop her before she’s said her piece.

“You were the only one who cared when I finally had the courage to write I was with Brandon’s child, Ned,” she said with quiet intensity, taking a step forward towards him. “Neither Brandon nor your father even bothered to acknowledge they had received it, even as I asked for nothing from them in return. I wasn’t expecting anything more after that, until your letter reached me. I had not even bothered to send you one, partly out of shame, and partly because I was sure you would scorn such an attempt. Yet still, you chose to reply after hearing the news anyway. You told me that you would ensure House Stark would always support me and my child, and provide whatever assistance I might require to ensure its wellbeing. That it was your blood, even if it did not carry your name.”

“You did what even Brandon could not with that, Ned. You brought me to tears,” she choked out hoarsely, desperate to get the words out now. To make him understand. “That was when I truly learned that there was no finer man in the world than Eddard Stark. And that I was a complete fool for throwing him away.”

Ned felt his throat constrict at her words, taking a step back away from her. This was becoming too dangerous, he needed to put a stop to it, now. “We cannot change the past Ashara. I’ve learned that better than most,” he finally, solemnly, says. “We can only push forward, and pray we make the right choices in the future.”

Her sad smile returned again as she shook her head. "I threw most of my future away along with you, Ned. What lord will wish to marry me now? A ruined and barren girl unable to give them heirs? And any who did, I would likely not want.”

At this, Ned could give little refute, although he strained to find one anyway. “You still have your family, your House.”

She let out a bitter laugh. “My family is all that keeps me going now, Ned. If I’m being completely honest with you, had I not seen both you and Arthur together, I do not think I could stand continuing to live in this world after such a cruel and twisted jape from the gods, where one of you died at the hands of the other. Not when there is nothing left for me to look forward to, as well.”

Ned just looked back aghast, horrified by her words and the casual manner in which she said them to him. But she flicked her hand dismissively at his expression, obviously wanting to move on from the topic. Ned reluctantly obliged. He’s not sure he even could say anything in response to that.

“Enough about me for one evening, I think. I’m actually more curious as to what exactly you plan on doing now, Ned.”

As she waited patiently for his reply, Ned took a fortifying breath. He’d expected this question to be asked well before now, but was ready for it nonetheless, making his face unreadable when he finally answers. “Go to King’s Landing. Confer with Jon Arryn. And take it from there.”

She actually smiled at that. “Still as terse with your replies as ever I see,” she drawled in mild annoyance, but also affection. “Very well then, Ned. I expect the whole realm will know your intentions soon enough, so I’ll not bother you for the details now, anymore then my brother Auron has. We trust Arthur, and I trust you. Whatever you two decide cannot be the wrong choice. I hope you will have faith in that in the coming days.”

“I… thank you, Ashara. I admit, that has become more difficult to believe as of late.”

“That’s because you worry too much, Ned. You need to see the hope you carry with you now, rather than just the grief and weight of the past” she whispered gently, reaching down into the crib to caress the dark strands on the prince’s head “The sight of him lit that spark of hope within me again after all, just when I had thought it completely lost. If it’s for the sake of this child, I know it will be worth it. Children are the only things worth putting our hopes for the future in, Ned.”

She pulled her hand away then, retrieving the shawl that had lain on her rocking chair this whole time, and draped it around her shoulders. She walks past him to leave now, but Ned cannot stop the urge to say something, anything, in order to get her to stay for just a bit longer. Her presence and company had become far too tempting, and his own feelings were in far too much upheaval for him to recognize it anymore at this point.

 “Ashara, I-”

She gave him an understanding, but deliberate glance back that stopped him mid-sentence. “Goodnight, Lord Stark. I wish you pleasant dreams, safe travels on the morrow, and good fortune in the struggles to come.”

And with that, Ashara Dayne strode out the door, leaving a very confused and conflicted Lord Eddard Stark with only the sounds of his nephew’s peaceful breathing as he slept. Letting out an exhausted sigh, Ned turned to tuck Jon in for the night

 

Chapter Text

Their ship, The Rising Dawn, had been outfitted overnight and was ready to set sail by the following morning. All the supplies needed for the voyage were gathered into its holds, and their personal baggage had been moved to waiting cabins onboard. While a hand-picked and trusted crew from House Dayne prepared their vessel for departure, Ned’s group were on the docks saying farewell to their hosts. The sight of his northern cohorts heartily throwing arms around the shoulders of their dornish counterparts, and engaging in some good-natured ribbing over last night’s events, brought a smile to Ned’s lips. As had the sight of Arthur, Auron, and their younger sister Allyria standing on the wharves, hugging each other one last time before saying their own private goodbyes.

There was still one noticeable absence however, as had been the case during last night’s meal. Ashara was nowhere to be found, having reframed from coming to see them off again. Ned wasn’t surprised though, having suspected this would happen. She had said everything she wanted to last night in the nursery, after all. Her subtle goodnight when she left him had had a sense of finality to it. He would likely never have a chance to see her again after this. Ned did not know whether to be sad or relieved.

 Cursing himself internally for his treacherous thoughts (he had a wife and child coming to see him for gods sakes!) Ned’s own words were curt, if still polite, as he thanked Lord Auron for his hospitality and bid him, his wife, and Lady Allyria farewell, promising them all to look after their brother, although Ned half-joked it would likely be the other way around more often than not, to which everyone had grinned and wished him well on his journey.   

Trotting up the gangplank with the rest of his company, Ned glanced back at the majestic castle of Starfall. For all the turmoil to his emotions coming here had caused, he was grateful for having the chance to bury at least some of his past ghosts. And then, for a brief moment, he thought he saw the outlines of a shadow along the far left tower window. Ned allowed himself a small smile at the possibility, before turning back towards the ship.

Soon they casted off, making their way down the Torrentine and into the open mouth of the Summer Sea. The weather was pleasantly calm and they would likely make good time before stopping in Old Town to resupply. From there, it would be a straight voyage past the Sunset Sea and up along the length of the Mander.  

Ned’s company was far from idle during their long voyage however. They would often take turns sparing with one another out on the deck of the ship, the northerners eager to test themselves against the famous Kingsguard. Often times, the crewmen of The Rising Dawn would end up joining them, taking part in-between their shifts, while also placing wages on the various matches. Ned even managed to find time to come out as well with Ice in hand, trying to work in some practice of his own. He ended up receiving many helpful tips regarding stances, forms, and techniques along the way, from Arthur and his sworn brothers. Though only after they had laid him down flat on his back, of course.

It was almost disconcerting just how well everyone seemed to be getting along, despite being only mere moments away from trying to decapitate each other for real, instead of simply pretending to, not long ago.

Once a day for a few hours, Wylla and the other ladies would join them outside carrying Jon for some sunshine and fresh air, attempting to calm his wailing protest at the rocking hell he was currently trapped in. Surprisingly, the rhythm of the clashing sounds from their swords actually seemed to lull the lad into a semblance of contentment.

But sword practice was only a secondary concern for Ned. It was honestly more for stress relief than anything else, before he set himself back to work on his main focus. Deep down in the vessel's holds, Ned spent the majority of their days and nights, usually with one or more of the Kingsguard, writing down notes while listening to their insights and advice on matters regarding the power dynamics of the royal court, which they had learned over their long years of service in the capital under Aerys.

He was especially engaged during his conversations with Ser Gerold and Arthur, grateful and reliant on their knowledge of their respective homelands, the Reach and Dorne, which were two of the three kingdoms Ned was most concerned about. Afterwards, he would spend even more hours lying awake on his cot, constantly going over his notes while continuing to write and then constantly rewrite. Ned could honestly say he had never written so much before in his life. Absently, he thought Maester Walys would likely have been very proud of him. Until he saw Ned burn those same notes after committing them to memory, anyway.

Thus the days on The Rising Dawn went by, in between Ned spending time with Jon or everyone onboard swapping stories over drinks and meals, it was mostly a moment for him to simply step back and think. And plan.

He used every spare moment to meticulously go over every detail for their return to the capital. They could afford nothing less. All the while seeking out opinions from the others, contemplating options together, and even arguing with them at times before reluctantly conceding to their points. He would likely never be able to express how grateful he was to everyone for coming this far with him. His northerners had not hesitated to swear themselves to his new cause. Arthur and the Kingsguard had neither doubted his sincerity, nor shown any misgivings in working hand in hand with someone who had once been their enemy. Even Wylla and Jon’s other nursemaids had been incredibly supportive, taking care of every minute chore while constantly checking in on his own wellbeing. Every night, he’d find a warm cup of tea awaiting him when he returned to his cabin, along with fresh papers and ink.

For a time, Ned simply enjoyed these peaceful moments while they lasted. They went by quickly however, for soon enough, after less than two weeks of sailing had gone by, they found themselves docked in the harbors of Oldtown. While the crew of The Rising Dawn busied themselves with resupplying, Ned’s northerners and a rotation of two of the three Kingsguard, all dressed plainly now to avoid unwanted attention, had quickly dispersed through the city’s winding alley’s and busy streets, partly for entertainment and respite from their long voyage, and partly to gather what information they could on current events in the realm during their brief stay.

Wylla and the other ladies had stayed behind for the most part, with the remaining Kingsguard on duty during those idyllic days, though they did take the time to walk outside on the wharves with Jon, taking in what sights they could, as they had never seen such a bustling city center before. Or any kind of city for that matter. They’d excitedly point at the constant stream of ships coming in and out of the harbor, or the many tall buildings lined up neatly nearby. Eventually, Ned took pity on their enthusiastic wonder, and sent them out shopping at the nearby markets for both Jon and themselves, alongside an escort while Ned himself stayed behind and played with his nephew. While lifting the lad up high above his head, much to his nephew's delight, Ned briefly felt a pang of regret, wondering if Lady Catelyn was doing the same with their own son right now. He quickly shook off his guilt however, reassuring himself that he would see them both soon.

When the ladies finally returned, they waxed long and eloquently on the various sights they had seen, especially regarding their visit to the famous Starry Sept, with its magnificent black marble hallways, grand arches, and breathtakingly magnificent multicolored glass edifices. They then casually started making mention of how Jon had not had a proper naming ceremony, something Rhaegar had apparently once promised in front of Lyanna when they were first debating names for their child. At first, Ned had adamantly refused such suggestions, still feeling irrationally overprotective and insistent on the need for secrecy. However, stern urging and reassurances from Ser Gerold that he had a trusted septon in mind who could perform the ceremony in private, along with listing the benefits of reinforcing Jon’s tenuous legitimacy by being properly anointed by the Faith, and on record, eventually caused Ned to reluctantly concede. The Starry Sept really was the only fitting place to hold such a ceremony anyway, given that while the Sack had spared the Sept of Baelor, the building itself had been completely overrun with refugees when Ned had seen it last, and he did not expect that to have been resolved upon his return.

And so the following morning, with the creeping of the dawn, Ned and his company silently slipped into the Starry Sept, hurriedly ushered by a waiting priest towards its nave, which was promptly sealed behind them for their exclusive use. Though uncomfortable treading into a place dedicated to worshiping a religion he did not, as were the rest of his northerners who were lined up and fidgeting awkwardly on each side of the aisle, Ned could not deny Wylla and the others had been right about the grand majesty of the building. Nor was he unmoved or not humbled as he climbed the steps Aegon the Conqueror himself once had on the day of his coronation, and as he knelt to present Jon before Septon Erich, a genial old man who had known Ser Gerold since he was a boy, and was both a close friend and trusted confidant of House Hightower’s.

There, he and Jon stood, bathed in rainbows of light from the rising sun shining through stain glass windows, as Septon Erich began reciting, “In the name of the Father, Mother, Smith, Warrior…” while gently pouring each of the seven oils across Jon’s forehead.

This was likely the strangest royal naming in the history of the Seven Kingdoms, with these hallowed halls empty of all witnesses save for a group of worshippers of the Old Gods, a few lowborn nursemaids, currently bawling worse than baby Jon ever had on their journey, and three members of the Kingsguard dressed in frumpy leather garbs now wet with tears, after awkwardly offering to comfort the weeping ladies. Ned had noted their neglect of similar northern offers, and briefly wondered if Wylla and the rest may have done it on purpose.

Finally, mercifully for Ned and his Old Gods’ sensibilities, Septon Erich brought the ceremony to a close with the final, parting words of, “And so, with the blessing of the Seven, we welcome you into this world, Aegon ‘Jon’ Targaryen. May they serve to always light your way.”

Ned held up the newly blessed infant, who looked back him at him in what seemed to be bemusement while wrinkling his nose as the oil began making its way down to his face.

Quietly, everyone thanked the Septon for his service, then hastily retreated into an adjacent chapel before the crowds began to gather for morning prayers, taking a discreet back entrance tunnel that lead into a nearby inconspicuous alleyway.  

Arriving just before their ship’s departure, the troupe quickly loaded onboard and were well on their way out of the Whispering Sound before the final prayer bells had sounded.

The respite allowed Ned and his cohorts a chance to finally go over all the information they had gathered about the current state of affairs in the Seven Kingdoms. Yet there was very little news beyond what they already knew, aside from the fact that Jon Arryn had heeded Ned’s message and sent out the call for all the lords to begin gathering in King’s Landing, Oldtown’s own lord and Ser Gerold’ nephew Leyton Hightower among them. The city itself was buzzing with rumor and speculation however, as word of Robert’s death had only just reached their walls. Many were panicked and wondering what would happen now.

Ned put that all aside for the time being, falling back into his previous routine on The Rising Dawn. He strove to stay focused over the following days, trying not to dwell on the weight he had felt in his chest when he heard those turbulent arguments at the local taverns, or the fretting chatter near the market stalls. At how he was somehow supposed to have the answers they were all looking for.

Their ship wound its way speedily along the coast of the Reach without further incident, passing through the Shield Islands, which were busily repairing the damages they had suffered during the Ironborn attack. Ned scowled in disgust at the sight, witnessing the result of the Iron Islanders blatant opportunism first hand. He had not even been aware the Greyjoys had declared for the Rebellion, until Mace Tyrell had informed him after lowering his banners at Storm’s End, asking for possible recompense. Another headache he’d have to deal with, though he hoped Quellon Greyjoy, the Lord Reaper of Pyke and one of the more reasonable rulers the Iron Islands had ever seen, would be amicable to at least returning what the Ironborn had stolen.

Soon enough, the Shield Islands had left their sights and they made surprisingly good progress despite having to go up the Mander, thanks to favorable headwinds. With luck, they would reach their next destination by the end of the week.

The days passed leisurely after that, the calm waters of the Mander a welcome reprieve compared to the tumult of the open seas. When they eventually passed by Highgarden, Wylla and Jon’s nursemaids had brought the boy on deck to admire the castle atop its lush garden hill, fascinated at the sight of so many flowers and greenery in one place, unlike their native land of Dorne.

Eventually, their water bound sojourn finally came to its conclusion at the headwaters of the Mander, where the market town of Tumbleton lay. Seeing the bustling activity of the place made Ned marvel at its recovery, having recalled two of the deadliest battles in the infamous Dance of the Dragons had taken place here. But they had no time to take in the sights, his group quickly disembarked, bidding farewell to the The Rising Dawn’s crew and then spent the rest of the day procuring transportation and supplies for the next leg of their journey, before finally resting for the night at a local inn. The following morning they traveled up the town path leading north towards the Goldroad, where they then turned east to finally make the long trek back towards King’s Landing. And to destiny.

 

*****

 

They came within the western outskirts of the city just as the sun was beginning to set, after another few weeks of constant riding. What greeted their sight upon arriving was not a throng of cheering crowds come to welcome them back though, as would have normally been the case for a returning member of the royal family, but a teaming mass of tents, and thousands of armed men meandering about, keeping their weapons sharp or playing games and getting drunk, all underneath various colored bolts of cloth on poles, flapping away as far as the eye could see.

Yet it was the crimson banners of House Lannister that hung most predominantly of them all.

Ned grimily took note of each and every detail. Tywin Lannister had not dispersed his bannermen and army since he had taken King’s Landing. If anything, it seemed he had brought even more troops to the city. Ned was not surprised though. The man was hardly the sort to reframe from using every bit of leverage he had, especially in such a volatile time. Even threaten to hold the capital hostage, if needed.

In fact, this outcome had been one of the most anticipated during his discussions with the Kingsguard, who remembered all too well what kind of man Tywin Lanniser was, from his time as Hand of the King. Still, it served as a valuable reminder for them all on the need to tread carefully here.

Snapping the reins of his mount Ned motioned for the others to follow, circling around the host from the Westerlands to the northern end of the city instead. To where his men were. Within an hour, he found them amongst a motely grouping of Valemen and Stormlanders, doing much the same as their Westermen counterparts. Careful to mark an open pathway strictly under northern banners Ned and his company carefully made their way down from their hilltop vantage point towards the encampment.

When they were stopped at the check point and asked to identify themselves, Ned just threw back the hood covering his face. The sentries nearly fell all over themselves trying to apologize afterwards, but Ned just brushed them off with a wave of his hand, ordering them to keep silent about his arrival, before brusquely riding in as they quickly scrambled to get out of his way.

Almost immediately upon their entry, Ned’s northern lords separated from the party, and began to fan out across the encampment, having already received their assigned tasks beforehand. They went with purpose in their strides, carrying their lord’s full confidence and trust to see his will done. Meanwhile, he signaled for Martyn to go on ahead towards the center of the camp, where the main Stark household was stationed, so that he might gather a column of Ned’s personal guard. As he left, Ned, the Kingsguard, Wylla and the nursemaids, and little baby Jon slowly circled around the camps periphery, avoiding as much contact as possible, and rode towards the nearest city entrance, the Old Gate.

They waited nearby for several minutes until finally spotting the hasty procession of well over fifty Stark guardsmen arriving with Martyn at the head, ready to escort them. They announced themselves at the gatehouse to the city watch, who immediately let them through. Ned and his company galloped along the main street thoroughfare as the gold cloaks cleared the way and bystanders gawked and whispered on the sidelines as they passed. It wasn’t long before they eventually came upon the shadow of the Red Keep and made their way inside.

They swiftly dismounted as soon as they entered the main courtyard, Ned handing off the reins of his steed to a haggard stable hand, before promptly ordering the steward who comes out to greet them to quickly summon Jon Arryn to the king’s private audience chamber, where Ned would be waiting for him. Before the steward could even process that order however, Ser Gerold immediately follow up by asking to be taken to see Ser Barristen. The steward hesitated for a moment upon recognizing the Lord Commander, looking back at Ned, who nodded in confirmation and instructed complete cooperation with the Kingsguard at his behest. Surprised, but reassured now, the steward beckoned Ser Gerold to follow, while sending a runner to immediately fetch Jon Arryn. Ned watched their retreating forms as they disappeared through the left entrance, along with that of Ser Oswell and ten of his guards accompanying them, before turning his attention to Arthur and Wylla. He instructed them both to see that Jon was properly washed and cleaned before bringing him to Ned later. They quickly complied, and made their way with the other ladies through the entrance on the right-hand side, with another ten Stark guardsmen marching promptly after them on Martyn’s order. The rest follow Ned and Martyn as they rush straight forward through the main entrance, towards the inner keep of Maegor’s Holdfast.

Through the winding hallways of the Red Keep, they eventually arrived at the elaborate doorframe which led to Aery’s private audience chamber. Oddly enough, this had been one of the few doors to still be left standing after the Lannister assault. Likely because Lord Tywin had left strict instructions to refrain from damaging the room, until he arrived to examine its contents for himself. Which was rather interesting to note, as it seemed to contradict Tywin’s claims that he had lost control of his army during the Sack. It was just one more piece of evidence that had indicted the man in Ned’s mind over the resulting deaths of Princess Elia and her children.

Martyn and the rest of Ned’s guard immediately lined themselves up against the hall, while Ned made his way inside alone. As he expected, the ornately decorated interior was still as pristine and virtually untouched as when he had last left it. Aerys’ gorgeously carved mahogany desk and chair set, stood prominently at the center, with a thick, luxurious, Myrish rug leading up to it. Bright and brilliantly designed tapestries hung along the length of the walls, as were some equally fine bookshelves with various treaties and tomes completely stacked throughout their interior. Behind the desk and chair, were several gold-tinted windows that shined brightly against the last glints of light from the setting sun. It was an ostentatious room, something that made Ned feel completely out of place. But it was also something he would simply have to get used to, unfortunately.

While still waiting for Jon Arryn’s arrival, Ned walked back outside for a moment and requested Martyn to track down a servant and have them bring up a bottle of the best wine from the castle cellars, along with some mead. Normally Ned didn’t care much for vintage, but he figured it wouldn’t hurt to have something that might put Lord Arryn a bit more at ease. He would certainly need all the help he could get with that, by the end of their upcoming conversation.

Several more minutes passed. Surprisingly, the trolley carrying a bottle of Arbor Gold and a decanter with honeyed mead arrived before Jon Arryn actually did, being placed alongside the king’s chair. Or perhaps not so surprisingly. All of the servants were likely thoroughly informed about Robert’s drinking habits, prior to his death.

Regardless, when the Lord of the Eyrie, Defender of the Vale, and Warden of the East, finally arrived Ned was on his feet to greet him, enthusiastically embracing the older man who had been like a father to him and who returned it with equal warmth.

“Ned, thank the gods you’re finally here!” Jon Arryn exclaimed, his voice sincerely relieved at the sight his foster son and protégé as they broke apart to look one another over, hands still clapped upon each other’s broad shoulders. His mentor looked distinctly haggard, but otherwise seemed in as good health as when Ned had last left him, with his broad shoulders still able to hold the weight of Ned’s grip, his aquiline nose still hanging proudly, and carrying his now grey sandy hair with that same sense of dignity. He looked back at Ned with relief in his pale blue eyes, even giving him a smile despite missing a few teeth now. Ned couldn’t help but do the same. Despite the absence of blood between them, it felt good to be reunited with a member of his family once again.

“I’m sure they had some small part in ensuring my safe return, Jon. Speaking of arrivals, have the rest of the lords shown up as requested?”

“All those inclined to attend in the first place anyway. All of our own respective lords are camped out on the northern edge of the city. Stannis came as soon as you lifted the siege with the remainder of the Stormlords, and has them stationed there as well. Mace Tyrell has settled in with a host from the Reach to the south, and I put up Hoster and the riverlords down there with him. And Lord Tywin… is obviously still in the same position he was when you left, to the west."

"Are my wife and son here, with Lord Hoster then?" Ned hurriedly asked, excitement now rising in his voice.

Jon Arryn shook his head. “The Riverlands were hit hardest during the war, Ned, and have been in a state of complete disarray ever since. The region is still plagued by outlaws, bandits, deserters from both sides who turned brigand, and small pockets of remaining loyalist resistance. Hoster’s been completely beset trying to deal with all these problems, while also providing relief to the lords and smallfolk who’ve all seen their crops and homes burned down in the process. He only arrived this morning, and said that he went ahead of Catelyn and your boy to make sure the roads were clear. They should still be another day or two’s travel from the city.”

Ned couldn’t keep the downcast look from his face, though he quickly tried to smooth it away with his hands. It was only one or two more days, and he had plenty of other matters to keep himself busy with in the meantime. He needed to remain focused on the task at hand.

“Well, I’m just as glad to know the gods helped keep you safe as well, Jon, what with all the lords to keep track of here, and given everything that must have happened following Robert’s death.”

At the mention of Robert’s name Jon Arryn’s face turned somber. “It’s been absolute chaos, Ned. All anyone can seem to do is argue about what to do. And I can only imagine how you must have felt, learning about it from so far away. I am so sorry Ned, I would give nearly everything I have to bring Robert back, even my own life. He was as much a son to me as you are, and I know it must have felt like losing another brother to you all over again.”  

“I’m fine, Jon.” And surprisingly, Ned was. While certainly saddened whenever he remembered his old friend now, it was also accompanied by another feeling, one which made Ned feel guilty for even admitting but could not deny. Relief. The same relief his sister had taken comfort in during her final moments. But he couldn’t let Jon Arryn know any of that, so instead he simply elaborated that, “I’ve had over a month to come to terms with the news. I take some comfort knowing Robert would have approved dying from a wound in battle, and that he always had his reservations about taking the throne. I also know Robert wouldn’t want me to waste time weeping over him when action was needed and the whole realm was at stake.” Which was probably true, although he doubted Robert would have approved of the kind of action Ned was planning on taking.

Stepping to the side, Ned led Jon across the chamber to a waiting chair in front of Aery’s desk. When Ned seated himself in the mahogany chair behind the desk right after however, Jon Arryn raised a noticeable eyebrow, but chose to let it pass without comment for the time being and instead focused on the matter at hand.

“You’re right… you’re right of course. Robert’s passing has obviously left us all in an awkward situation right now, to say the least. When I announced you were racing back to the capital with an announcement, it managed to buy us some time with the other lords, who contented themselves with waiting for your arrival, instead of breaking out into a riot. If it wasn’t for your letter, I’m not sure what I could have done to keep them all in line. Even so, I was mostly still worried about how things were going with you. What happened out there, Ned? Did you manage to find your sister after all?”

“I’ll explain everything from my end in a moment, Jon. For now, why don’t you update me on what’s been happening here in the capital, along with all the other kingdoms?” Ned deflected, waving it aside. He would need Arthur and Wylla to return before he could even begin telling that story, after all. Instead, Ned reached out and uncorked the decanter from the nearby trolley and filled two goblets with mead, before handing one over to Jon Arryn.

Accepting the sudden change in topic, Jon happily took the offered glass before sitting back in his chair. “Where would you like me to begin?” he broached.

“Start with the most important one first. What news from Dragonstone? Did they accept our request for a truce?”

“Yes, thankfully. As soon as I read your letter, I sent out the offer to Queen Rhaella. After a few exchanges we managed to come to an accord. I agreed to have Stannis halt construction of the new fleet Robert had ordered be built to take the island. He hadn’t gotten very far before Robert’s death had put it permanently on hold anyway, so it wasn’t too much of a concession to make. She in turn, consented to pull the royal fleet back to Dragonstone and allow all sea traffic to and from Blackwater Bay and King’s Landing to go unharassed. That’s been more critical than you might think Ned, given we likely couldn’t feed all the lords and bannermen gathered in the city right now without that merchant shipping, not to mention the city residents. For now, the Targaryens are simply waiting on word of your return, as is the rest of the court in fact.” 

Ned let out the breath he wasn’t even aware he had been holding, in relief. The first hurdle had been overcome. Now that the Queen seemed willing to talk, he had the opening he needed to relay the news. Hopefully, it would be enough to win her over. It had to be. Almost everything hinged on it. For now though, he turned his attention back to the conversation at hand, nodding in approval and taking a sip of his mead which Jon Arryn mimicked, before responding.

“That’s good to hear, Jon. Have there been any objections from the other lords about us opening up negotiations?”

“I decided to simply not tell anyone, actually. Wouldn’t want to bother them with such a minor detail after all, not that it’s been hard,” Jon answered dryly, taking a deep swig of his glass now. “They’ve either honestly completely forgotten about Dragonstone… or have deliberately chosen to. Either way, all of the lords seem more preoccupied with the matter of the succession.”

“No one has simply declared for Stannis then?” Ned quietly probes.

Jon Arryn just scowled. Specifically, upon hearing the mention of Stannis' name. “I’ve tried to declare for Stannis, Ned.”

Ned couldn’t help but smile at his annoyed tone. “I take it your gesture did not go over very well?”

Jon let out a huff of irritation. "A vast, chasm wide really, understatement. I'm certain that Stannis and Robert were definitely brothers now, despite their differences and estrangement. They both share the same obstinate Baratheon stubbornness." Looking at a complete loss he stuck his glass out, which Ned obligingly refilled, before slumping back into his chair and idly swirling the liquid in contemplation before continuing.

“As you’ve already probably guessed, when I quietly approached Stannis to offer my support for his ascension, he adamantly refused to even consider it. I argued, that as Robert’s oldest male successor he was next in line to the throne, and that he was obligated by law to take it up. He countered by saying that, as Robert’s coronation never took place, his reign was never legally established… and neither was the succession. Then he kept arguing that with Robert, Aerys, and Rhaegar dead we had lost both our cause and justification for the Rebellion. So, according to him, for the good of the realm we should instead immediately renew our oaths of loyalty to Prince Viserys and return to being dutiful and lawful subjects of House Targaryen. Needless to say, his voice is only part of a small, if persistent minority.”

“He was always conflicted about breaking his oaths to the crown Jon, even with Aerys wearing it. His duty as Robert’s brother was the only thing that eventually compelled him to declare for us,” Ned carefully pointed out.

“Well, almost none of our lords are inclined to sympathize with Stannis’ plight of conscious or listen to his reasons, Ned!” Jon Arryn quipped sardonically.

“Because they’re afraid of possible- no, likely, future reprisal if Prince Viserys should be allowed to come into the throne?” Ned states more than asks. It wasn’t really a question after all.

He allowed himself a small smile at the sight of Jon Arryn's surprised, and then impressed look on the latter’s face, before slowly nodding his head in affirmation.

“That’s exactly it Ned! Even if he were to ignore the fact that his father, brother, good-sister, and niece and nephew, all died during the rebellion, and forgo any desire to avenge himself and House Targaryen for all they’ve suffered, which is very unlikely to say the least, there’s the unpleasant fact that we also tried to give his throne away to- my apologies, Robert- a usurper, essentially. Even if Queen Rhaella were to agree on his behalf, it wouldn’t suddenly wipe away their suspicions or distrust of us after everything that’s happened. If the boy isn’t in danger of going mad like Aerys already, which is a very serious concern in its own right Ned, he soon will be from constantly looking over his shoulders and expecting us to rise up again at some point. And I’m not even taking into account our own lords’ mistrust and anger for everything Aerys and Rhaegar have done to us. I simply cannot imagine any gesture on our part which would manage to bridge the yawning rift that divides us at this point.”  

Ned simply nodded in casual acceptance, as though completely unconcerned by the prospect of seeing his head end up on a pike at some point in the near future, which seemed to baffle his foster father. "The northern lords who accompanied me shared similar concerns during our journey back, and their opinion that their peers would likely feel the same. I’m somewhat surprised they haven’t all tried to pressure and force Stannis to give in and proclaim himself King already, as Robert did."

Jon rolled his eyes at that possibility. “Stannis stared down over fifty thousand men from the Reach, with only five hundred of his own in return, for nearly a year during the Siege of Storm’s End as you know better than most, Ned. He and his garrison ate every horse, dog, cat, rat, and were even prepared to eat their dead, rather than give the castle up. Without Robert, no one else can change his mind, and once it’s set on something he will outlast any who try to challenge it. Even when I threw in the possibility of wedding Lord Tywin's daughter, Cersei, he continued to staunchly reject the entire notion of ever taking the throne. And admittedly, it’s not as if the other lords are exactly clamoring for Stannis’ elevation either. They came here to back Robert, not his brother, Ned. And where Robert actually won their allegiance over time, Stannis openly scorns it.” Finally finished with his lamentations, Jon took a deep and bitter drink from his glass, which Ned obligingly followed suit.

Ned quietly waited for Jon Arryn to calm himself as he gulped down every drop, patiently refilling both their cups after the latter signaled for more. “You’re right, I did somewhat expect this sort of reaction from Stannis, especially after meeting him for the first time following the siege. So, are there any other options currently being explored?”

“Honestly? No. At least none that could build any type of consensus anyway,” Jon raggedly sighed. “A few proposed that we skip Stannis altogether, and offer the crown up to his and Robert’s younger brother, Renly. That, unfortunately, made far too many other lords nervous about disrupting their own lines of succession, and all in exchange for the unappealing prospect of a child monarch, even if Stannis were to allow them to take the boy, which he won’t. Others are actually throwing out the possibility of dissolving the Iron Throne’s authority entirely, and reestablishing the independence of all the Seven Kingdoms, which was obviously very controversial and sparked cries of treason. I was halfway near to a heart attack worrying if we were about to start a whole new civil war right then and there, which is ironic since that is the biggest fear of splitting the kingdoms apart again. Too many of the lords are unsure of what would happen in the aftermath, most fearing that everyone would simply turn on one other, as the Seven Kingdoms did before the Conquest. Or worse, like during the Age of the Hundred Kingdoms. About the only idea that a majority of the lords haven’t actively opposed is to call a Great Council to settle the matter. Most believe that’s what you planned to announce when you finally returned in fact.”

At this, Jon Arryn scoffed. “I can’t see why they’re even bothering though. It’s not as if they won’t just simply continue arguing about it there, as much as they have been here, to no effect. Still, I hear some are already lining up behind potential candidates, generally for lords of great houses with an actual chance of winning. Even our bannermen are starting to flout both of our names, Ned.”

“That will never happen Jon,” Ned swore resolutely, taking a deep drink of his own now as if to wash away that unsettling thought.

His foster father simply waved his hand dismissively, as though he had expected that reaction. “Yes, yes Ned, I know how averse you are to politics. I’m not exactly eager to sit on that excruciating chair any more than you, either. I’m fairly certain my old body would give out within a year of having those damn swords sticking into my back. And without a clear blood tie to the previous dynasty, any prospective candidate for the Iron Throne would only invite future challengers at some point, even with a Great Council affirming them, especially if the vote was close or split. Yet that still leaves us stuck in the same awkward position we started in, no acceptable heir to take up the crown.”

At this, Ned suddenly smiled, surprising Jon Arryn.

"I completely understand our lords’ fears and empathize with their concerns Jon, better than most, I would think." That was only too true, as no one could deny House Stark had suffered the most grievously at the hands of House Targaryen, the memory of Ned’s burning father and choking brother flashing through both their minds. "In this case however, I happen to agree with Stannis. The only possible person that’s suitable to sit on the Iron Throne at this point is a member of House Targaryen."

Jon Arryn’s face switched from shock, to stunned, to completely incredulous, faster than a murmur’s hands at a puppet show.

“Ned, you just said-!”

“Yes, I did. And I agree that Prince Viserys is not an acceptable option. But I wasn’t speaking of him.”

“Who then? Queen Rhaella? That would upset the order of succession on two counts if we supplanted a male heir as well, and then we would just end up back where we started once she passed, fearing for our lives after Viserys’ ascension.”

“No, not her either, though it would be tempting now that you mention it. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on who you ask, we already have the ideal, and more importantly the legitimate, heir to the throne already.”

At that, Ned inclined his head towards the direction behind Jon. “Arthur, Wylla, you may come in now.”

Ned worried that his foster father’s neck had nearly snapped from how quickly he swung it back to look at the door. Standing tall and completely straight at the now open entrance, was the imposing figure of Ser Arthur Dayne, dressed in the white cloak and full armor of the Kingsguard, with Dawn still strapped to his back, with the shorter and more petite figure of Wylla in front of him, carrying in her arms a large bassinet with a curious prince inside, who was staring at and taking in his new surroundings. They both strode into the chamber as if it was the most natural thing they should be doing.

The sight of Ser Arthur seemed to throw Jon Arryn completely out of sorts, as he turned to stare back at Ned with a baffled expression and questions clearly etched on his face. Wylla meanwhile, walked right past them to set the bassinet on the trolley next to Ned, who already cleared it of their drinks, before excusing herself back out into the hallway, while Arthur settled in on his other side.

“Ned, what’s going on her-?” Jon Arryn began but was quickly cut off.

“Jon, meet Jon. Or more accurately, you stand before Prince Aegon of House Targaryen, trueborn son of Crown Prince Rhaegar and my sister Lyanna. Rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men. Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. Eventually anyway,” Ned finished with a wry smile. His nephew looked about ready to nod off while being formally introduced, and having all his many titles listed. The lad was definitely half Stark.

Jon Arryn’s eyes looked like they were about to bulge right out of his sockets and into his goblet with how wide they suddenly went.

“Ned, wha-how? When did-?”

“They ran off together, Jon,” Ned stated with quiet solemnity “Rhaegar didn’t kidnap or rape my sister, much as Robert wanted to believe that. She went willingly with him. According to Ser Arthur and Oswell, they were wed on the Isle of Faces shortly after reuniting in the Riverlands, near Harrenhall.”

“But Ned… are you sure!? Do you have any proof of this? No offense to Ser Arthur or his sworn brothers but they would have every incentive to lie to you about such a thing.”

“My sister told me herself, Jon. But even before that, I saw the proof with my own eyes years ago, even as I blindly refused to acknowledge it. Lyanna was never happy about her betrothal to Robert, she couldn’t stand his lecherous ways and how he admired her beauty but nothing else about her. How he didn’t really love her, but only loved the idea of her, as if she were some kind of trophy. Howland Reed also confessed everything to me, after Lyanna passed away and Jo-Prince Aegon, was born. About what really happened at the Tourney at Harrenhall.”

 It was quite a feat for Jon Arryn to look even more confused than he already was, but he managed it, somehow. “At Harrenhall? I don’t understand, Ned. We all saw what happe-”

“We saw Rhaegar give the crown to Lyanna, but not the reason why Jon, and it changes everything we thought we knew.” And then Ned told him. He told him that it had been Lyanna who had masqueraded as the mysterious Knight of the Laughing Tree during the tourney, trying to avenge the insult done to Howland by some squires through defeating the knights they served. About how Rhaegar had indeed found her after being ordered to track the disappearing knight down by King Aerys, and how he covered up her escape. About how, during that time, they became charmed by one another and developed a fast friendship. And that Rhaegar’s crowning of Lyanna had not been done out of simple infatuation at the expense of his wife, but out of admiration and a wish to give Lyanna’s prowess in the joust her due, despite no longer being able to participate.

At the end of the story, Jon Arryn fell back into his chair, having already placed his goblet back on the desk while rubbing the temples of his head, taking in everything that had just been said. And everything that it meant. Everything they had done, everything they had fought for, and everyone they had lost from Robert, to Ned’s family, to Jon’s own nephew and heir Ser Deny’s Arryn, had all been for nothing in the end. It was likely as bitter for him to swallow as it had been for Ned all those months ago.

“Alright,” Jon Arryn said shakily. “So it’s likely Lyanna went with Rhaegar willingly. Half the court already believes that anyway, when they were outside of Robert’s earshot at least, so it probably won’t be difficult to convince the rest. But is there proof that they were legitimately married, Ned?”

At that, Ser Arthur startled Jon Arryn by revealing a bound scroll from his cloak and slapping it down onto the desk, right in front of the Lord of the Eyrie. “A copy of their marriage contract, performed by one Septon Maynard on the Isle of Faces in front of a heart tree, and witnessed by myself and Ser Oswell, Lord Arryn. The original was secretly sent to the Citadel in the Septon’s diary for safe keeping, sealed with the crown prince’s own signet ring. Prince Rhaegar even had a written testament from both himself and Princess Lyanna of the event recorded in it. If need be, you may summon the Septon yourself Lord Arryn, to give a personal account of the ceremony to the rest of the court, along with the record from the Citadel vaults.”

Cautiously, and warily avoiding Ser Arthur’s gaze, Jon Arryn reached for the scroll, carefully unfurling it from its bindings and slowly began reading through its contents. When he finally finished, he let the scroll snap back closed again, while staring numbly at the floor for a few minutes, likely trying to just process it all, and the implications.

Eventually, he took a deep breathe to calm himself before finally speaking, “If Ser Arthur and his sworn brothers are willing to swear by the validity of these documents, and if you personally believe them Ned, then I am prepared to accept it as the truth as well. But gods Ned, I would never have believed the mess we had been left with could actually get worse!”

Ned’s eyes were impassive as he carefully scanned his foster father, trying to read Jon’s reaction. “Not necessarily, Jon. In fact, I believe my nephew may well be our best solution out of this ‘mess’.”

“And what, exactly, are you planning on doing with him, Ned?”

“The only thing I can do, Jon. Declare myself Lord Regent and Protector of the Realm in the boy’s name, until he comes of age and can sit on the Iron Throne for himself,” he stated as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. From anyone else’s mouth, with the slightest hint of ambition, it probably even would have been.

Jon Arryn looked at Ned as if he had grown two additional heads like the Targaryen sigil.

“You Ned?”

Although Ned could perfectly understand Jon’s reaction, his incredulous expression made him feel slightly offended, surprisingly. “And why not me?” he huffed indignantly. “I am his oldest living male relative, one of the main leaders who fought in this war, and a great lord in my own right. I believe that gives me sufficient rank, reason, and authority to assume the post. This way, we need not bother with a Great Council. Few lords will be able to openly gainsay my nephew’s blood right to the throne, and I have no intention of giving those few any opportunity to even try.”

“Well yes, it does make some sense, now that you say it aloud. But it’s just… well, you Ned.”

He supposed Jon’s continued disbelief was fair. Truth be told, Ned still felt completely horrified at the prospect. He had not even dreamed of becoming Lord of Wintefell and ruling just the North a year ago. Now he was posed to govern all Seven Kingdoms, and he felt completely inadequate to meet the challenge. He couldn’t admit any of that however, not before he gained the older man’s support, anyway.

“You disapprove?” he asked instead.

“No, I'm just... surprised. This isn't something I ever expected from you, Ned. You absolutely despise the game of thrones. So what in the world could have ever brought you to consider taking on such a task, putting yourself right in the middle of it?”  

“I made a promise to Lyanna, Jon.”

Jon Arryn went quiet now. There was nothing more that needed to be said, really. Eddard and Robert had just fought a war, partly on Lyanna’s behalf after all. Robert himself had been disgruntled at the notion of being King, but was prepared to take on the mantle anyway, mainly to spite the Targaryens, but also partially to secure the realm so that Lyanna could safely be returned to him.

He chose to change tactics instead. “What about your northerners? Would they agree to such a dramatic shift in their relationship with the other six kingdoms?”

“The ones who accompanied me have already pledged themselves to the cause, and are currently working their way through the northern camp to quietly bring the rest of my bannerman on side. Lyanna was just as much a Stark as my father and Brandon were, and they loved her as fiercely as they did them. They’ll stand behind her son, if I ask it of them,” Ned finished firmly.

“And I suppose they also won’t object to the fact that the next king of Westeros would be half-northern, while their own liege lord would essentially rule the entire realm for the next decade and a half, at the very least. I doubt they’ll fail to see this as a chance for the North to assert political dominance over the entire Seven Kingdoms, and that they can expand their own influence accordingly,” Jon observed, mulling over the concept now.

Ned winched internally. He did not like to think of his northerners in such opportunistic terms. It felt alien, and so very… southron. But he wouldn’t delude himself either. All men had such desires deep down inside. Northern lords were just more direct about expressing them.

Jon Arryn took this opportunity to lean forward and peer into the basket at the yawning infant, studying him closely. "Well, he certainly has the Stark look at least. That will no doubt please the rest of the North, though I fear they'll be the only kingdom in the realm who will be."

“Still, an infant king, Ned?” he questioned, sitting back in his chair. “Renly and Viserys made the other lords nervous enough as it is, and they’re several years older than your nephew.”

“Aye, it's not ideal. But what is in such a shit situation, Jon? And it's the only answer we have that might actually have a chance of succeeding. No one will be able to dispute Jo… Prince Aegon’s claim to the throne like they could with Renly, and being half Stark would make him more acceptable for the lords who sided with us compared to Viserys, while also lessening concerns about potential madness. And his split heritage would be able to bridge that divide you spoke of earlier, between rebels and loyalist.”

“All true Ned, but this… a newborn king would mean the longest regency in the history of the Iron Throne, as I’m sure you’re well aware. And that brings me to my previous point about the North being the only ones happy about this development. The last time a Stark held power in King's Landing did not exactly endear itself into the memories of the southern kingdoms, Ned...”

“I am very much aware of my ancestor's legacy, Jon,” Eddard responded tersely. “Believe me when I say I wish I could serve for just a single day in office like my forefather, Cregan Stark, did. But I know that isn't possible, and I don’t intend to entrust my nephew's wellbeing, or the realm's, to a bunch of backstabbing, bickering council of regents like he did. Nor do I intend to emulate his term in office in other ways... mostly. Still, my ancestry could prove useful, especially as a deterrence to potential challengers. The lords will remember that part of the Hour of the Wolf most of all. Or risk learning its lessons personally, if they don’t,” he finished in a quiet, chilling tone.  

Jon Arryn paused at that moment, startled by the deadly seriousness with which his foster son spoke, leaning back to study him in a new light now. Ned hoped he was not found wanting.

Though the prospect of more war and death absolutely turned his stomach, Eddard would not allow his aversion to bloodshed to keep him from doing what needed to be done. And if what was needed was for more to die, even in their thousands, then he would not shy away from it, although he wished to do everything he possibly could to avoid that outcome. But the one thing he absolutely knew would end his term in office before it even began was to show hesitancy or weakness. So, no matter what regrets his decisions would cause him by the time this was all over (and he was certain there would be many), he needed to make them boldly, decisively… and brutally if necessary. He would likely regret it far worse if he were to do otherwise.

"Be that as it may, Ned,” Jon carefully ventured, “you cannot govern with just brute force. You say you don’t want to emulate your ancestor, but you have no prior experience with politics in the south and, meaning no offense, lack the subtly needed for managing the many egos in the royal court.”

“Which is why I would name you Hand of the King, Jon, as Robert originally intended when he was alive.”

That actually managed to catch Jon Arryn off-guard, despite how logical it seemed to Ned. The Lord of the Eyrie was a deft negotiator, able to look at issues with clear objectivity, and most of all, he had a patient and understanding nature that allowed him to listen to all sides in an argument while staying above the fray. It was a minor miracle already that he had managed to keep the capital in such good order until Ned had finally returned, so it seemed only natural to appoint him to the office as his right hand.

But that wasn’t the reason for his objection. “You would appoint me of all people, the first lord to declare open rebellion against House Targaryen, as Hand on behalf of a Targaryen king, Ned?”

 Ned simply a puzzled look at his reaction. “Is it any stranger than the notion of me becoming regent on behalf of a Targaryen king, Jon?”

Jon Arryn blinked, before lapsing back from embarrassment. “No… no, of course not Ned. The only notion that would be stranger is if Robert were the one declaring it instead. But you have a blood tie to this infant king you’ve chosen, at least. How would you justify giving me, the person who instigated the Rebellion in the first place, such a prominent position?”

“Because you’re the only one I ever would, Jon,” Ned stated like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And it was, to him at least. “You’ve had more experience with and know more about southron politics than almost anyone I know, let alone myself. You also have sufficient rank and prestige to warrant the position. The fact that you are the original rebel instigator is an asset, as your support would ease worries and invite the other lords who fought for the Rebellion to come back into the fold of House Targaryen.”

Eddard leaned forward then, placing his elbows on the desk and intertwining his hands together, before staring straight into Jon’s eyes. “And most of all, because there is no other person in Westeros I trust more. Both to watch my back and to help guide me through what will undoubtedly be the most difficult trial in my life. Trust is more precious than anything else in King’s Landing, and I will not squander it by sidelining the one man I can trust, and also has my complete confidence in his ability to do the job.”

They sat in silence for a long time after that, Jon because he doesn’t know what else to say, and Ned who’s already said everything he needed to. But it leaves him with one final question that still needed to be asked, so Eddard finally breaks the moratorium and does so.

"Can I count on your support, Jon? Will you stand beside me now, as we always have, and see this through with me to the end?"

For a brief moment Jon hesitated, looking both conflicted and apprehensive. But slowly, finally, he nodded. "Yes, Ned. Of course I'm with you. You don’t even need to ask, because that’s never been in question. Whatever you choose to do, you will always have my support. I just… I hope you're ready for what you’ll be asking, of both of us in the coming years. And of him, as well," Jon stated pointedly, tilting his head toward the bassinet.

If only Jon knew just how much Eddard had agonized and worried over that very thought. How he had been thinking about and working through those possibilities for well over a month now. But it would be more effective to simply show him instead, as Ned quickly went through all the mental notes he had tucked away in preparation for this conversation.

“Well, if we’re really going to do this, and it seems like we are, then as your newly appointed Hand of the King, I recommend we immediately hold a coronation ceremony. I also advise you come up with a new title for yourself, to help solidify your authority, given the unprecedented length of this regency.”

The prospect of another title made Ned’s face turn sour, but he didn’t outright refuse. “I’ll take your second recommendation into consideration, but hold off on the first. I’d rather we hold a simple investiture ceremony instead, where the lords recognize Jo-Crown Prince Aegon as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne and swear their fealty, while also acknowledging my position and authority as regent.”  

“You’re not going to crown him outright as king?” Jon asked in surprise.

“I would rather save that ceremony for when he comes of age, and can claim the throne in his own right. It will boost his prestige and hopefully shore up his reign later on.”

“Perhaps. But you know what the other lords migh- no, will say don’t you?

“That I intend to deny him any chance of ever wielding any real authority, and make him my puppet?” Eddard asked, snorting in disgust.

Jon Arryn simply nodded.

“Let them. They would say the same even if I did crown him king. It’s the bane of any child ruler, Jon. Though, it might not be the worst outcome if they did assume that. I need to establish my own authority during these early years anyway, and if they are wary or unsure of my ambitions, or to what lengths I would go for them, then they will reframe from taking hasty action. Initially, at least.”

Eddard shrugged. “Besides, I think that only reinforces my point about the need for the pomp and luster of a real coronation for Crown Prince Aegon in the future, wouldn’t you say?”

Jon just looked on, completely dumbfounded and perplexed now. He was clearly wondering where exactly all this insightfulness was coming from. Certainly not from the shy, quiet, and disinterested lad who grew up in the Eyrie under his care all this time… could it?

He decided to shove aside his bewilderment for the time being though. “Alright, so that’s the ceremony and announcement out of the way for now. But even assuming they accept everything up to that point with no objections, which I highly doubt, the lords and ladies will still want clarity on what your policy for the realm will be exactly moving forward, especially after such a tumultuous series of events this past year.”

Eddard leaned his elbows on the desk, interlocking his fingers together, while he pondered through the matter aloud. “Reconciliation has to be our main focus. We have to eradicate all notion of recrimination between both loyalist and rebels, bind up the wounds we have suffered at each other’s hands, and heal as one nation again. Otherwise no one will have any sense of security or peace of mind, and we’ll never be able to stabilize the realm. Which also means that, as my first official act, I will be recalling all the previously exiled lords under both Aerys and Robert, restoring all their titles... and reversing all previous divisions of land during the Rebellion.”

Jon Arryn's greying eyebrows shot up so far they nearly left his face. "But, Ned-!"

"We cannot punish Targaryen loyalists when I am about to put a Targaryen back on the throne again, Jon," he tried to explain calmly.

“Robert promised-!”

“Robert isn’t here anymore,” Eddard now refuted, coldly. “Nor did he yet have the authority to make those promises while he was alive. So we are not bound or obligated to keep any on his behalf.”

“Many of our lords fought and bled for our cause, sacrificed treasure and sons for it, on the understanding that they would receive new territory from their holdings, Ned!”

“Yes, and some of those lords also fought against us initially, Jon. Perhaps they should be more grateful for their lives, and the fact that it isn’t their lands we’re talking about dividing up here instead.”

Jon Arryn exhaled harshly in frustration. While more considerate than Robert had been, Ned could often be just as stubborn when it came to his principles. There was little chance of dissuading him now that his mind was set. So the soon-to-be new Hand of the King did what he did best and started looking for an alternative.

“Well, we can’t just leave them with nothing for their efforts, Ned. Many of them risked being burned as traitors alongside us. If we demonstrate preferential treatment to the loyalist, our lords will desert us, if not now than at some point in the future when we have need of them.”

“I agree. At a minimum, the crown will have to cover the cost of all losses suffered by every lord, be it rebel or loyalist, with funds from the royal treasury. Probably more, given we’ll likely have to dole out additional rewards for those who rendered distinguished service on both sides, if I’m being honest.

Now Jon was staring at him as if he had gone as mad as the king whose chair Ned was currently sitting in. “Ned, you’ll bankrupt the realm before you’ve even taken office if you do that!” he exclaimed hysterically. “Aerys may have left behind a full treasury, but even it has its limits! The amount it would take to satisfy all of the lords, in addition to the cost of reconstruction, never mind the realm, but just of the capital alone, could send us into financial ruin. How do you expect to run the Seven Kingdoms once you've emptied the vaults? Tywin Lannister certainly won't be inclined to extend us a loan given the terms the two of you parted on the last time you met.”

“I would not take it from him even if he did, Jon,” Ned insisted hotly. “Lord Tywin would be worse than Lord Bolton's leeches if we were ever put into his debt. I have some ideas regarding the treasury however, though I won’t make any commitments until I’ve taken certain meetings on the morrow. I will say that at the very least, we may be able to cut some of those costs you’re afraid of. But again, we’ll have to see how those meetings go. Regardless, it needs to be done, even if we have to take out a loan from the Iron Bank. As you said, our lords will expect some sort of compensation for their sacrifices, and it’s critical that we do so in order to win their support for the new order we’re trying to establish.”

Sighing in defeat, the Hand of the King slumped against the handle of his chair, deciding it best to move on to their next set of thorny problems rather than continue to argue the point. “Since we’re on the matter of Tywin Lannister, I think it’s prudent for us to start discussing the most pressing concerns to establishing this ‘new order’ of ours. From my perspective, both the biggest potential problem and asset is Dragonstone, and the rest of House Targaryen.”

Nodding in agreement, Ned gestured to Arthur, who acquiesced by producing another set of sealed scrolls on the table. Inclining his head in thanks, Eddard turned back to face Jon and explained. “I already have a letter addressed to Queen Rhaella written up, detailing all the recent events that have transpired, or will soon transpire, and also extended an invitation for their return to King’s Landing, guarantees regarding their protection, and an offer of continued recognition of their royal status. If we can just convince her, than any other opinion won’t matter, here or on Dragonstone. These other parchments are sworn testimonies signed by Ser Athur, Ser Gerold, and Ser Oswell, along with their personal seals. I plan to send them along with the copy recording the marriage later tonight, so feel free to read through the letter beforehand, to see if you find anything objectionable,” he finished before handing one of the scrolls over to Jon.

Taking it in thanks, Jon Arryn set the letter aside for now, choosing to continue the discussion instead. “I don’t imagine I’ll read anything you haven’t already told me, but I’ll make sure to go over it quickly once we’re finished, and see that it’s sent off with the rest promptly. But, Ned… do you think it will be enough?”

Eddard could only shrug helplessly at the question, admitting he wasn’t sure. “It has to be, Jon.”   

“Even if she were to acknowledge the testaments as genuine, it wouldn’t be beyond imagining for her to think that Ser Arthur and the remaining Kingsguard may have simply switched sides, after what happened with Ser Jaimie and Ser Barristan. Again, no offense intended of course,” he hastily insisted, before giving an apologetic nod to Arthur, which the latter returned in good grace. “My point still stands, however. Any authority we wield would derive solely from everyone accepting your nephew’s legitimacy. But if Rhaella doesn’t… if she refuses to acknowledge him as her grandson, or even if she does but rejects your right to govern as his regent in place of herself, our situation becomes very… precarious.”

Eddard hesitated briefly before speaking again. For the first time in the conversation, Jon Arryn had finally presented a problem he had not prepared an answer for. “Queen Rhaella will accept so long as she's convinced the lad is truly her blood. I included coming to see and inspect Jo-Prince Aegon, for herself in my invitation back to King’s Landing. And from everything I’ve heard, the queen is intelligent enough to recognize that the balance of military power is almost entirely in our favor. Picking her grandson over Prince Viserys, along with my being regent and her accepting that, would be the only compromise we could all move forward on, while ensuring the safety of her family and her House. I’m confident that she’ll see that and be willing to agree to almost anything for their sake, whatever other doubts she may have.”   

“Well, I’m not as confident as you that she’ll see the boy as a member of her family, given his coloring. And I fear you might be overestimating just how strong our military position actually is compared to hers right now, Ned…” 

“He might seem all Stark at first glance, Jon, but there are certain tells in his features, from the angle of his nose, to the evenness of his, still admittedly, long face, and his leaner frame which resembles Rhaegar more than it does either me or my brothers, even at that age. And he definitely inherited his calm demeanor from his father, because Lyanna never stopped crying for months on end after she was born. As for the other matter…you’re talking about Dorne, I take it?”

Now Ned just rolled his eyes at the older man’s startled expression. His foster father couldn’t think that Ned lacked that much awareness, could he? “I didn't become temporarily blind or deaf while I was traveling in Dorne, Jon. I’ve heard the whispers. Prince Oberyn is trying to rally the principality behind Prince Viserys and is agitating for war. I’ve also heard that his brother, Prince Doran, has expressly forbad any such thing, for the time being.”

Jon Arryn slammed his goblet down now. “Emphasis on ‘for the time being’, Ned! With Robert gone, our alliance is more divided and weak than at any point during the Rebellion, while we’re about to test that bond even further, perhaps to its breaking point! And do you think House Martell will be happy to hear that your nephew, the son of the woman that Rhaegar displaced their sister for, will be the one to ascend the throne in place of the niece and nephew they lost? If Rhaella decides to oppose us, they’ll have the perfect opportunity to rally the loyalist support you’re counting on behind her and Viserys instead, while our coalition is busy tearing itself apart.”

Eddard let out another deep, if stuttered, calming breath before stating firmly “Rhaella will support us, Jon. This is the only path that would actually ensure her House’s survival, rather than all but gambling it away, with the very real possibility of being extinguished forever. She has to realize that. So, we’ll worry about the worst possible outcome, if and when it actually arises. Until then, we wait for her response.”

Ned lets the finality of his words sink into the room for a moment before continuing. “Now, assuming we gain Rhaella’s cooperation, Dorne will lose all legal basis to pursue a war. With us, anyway. But I agree their resentment poses a risk that could hound us for years, even after the regency period is over. Which is why we need to turn their attention towards someone they hate instead. So I intend to give them what they truly want even more than the Iron Throne. Justice. Justice for the murders of Princess Elia and her children.”

Jon Arryn was out of his seat now, his arms spread wide and his hands planted firmly on the desk, while leaning across to stare at his pupil in panic. “Ned! Tywin’s army is still right outside the city gates. If you move against him now, King’s Landing will turn into a blood bath!

“Dorne will not accept paltry apologies from us, Jon! Not when we are so weakened and badly divided with Robert gone, as you’ve just pointed out. This is the only thing that has a chance of truly appeasing them and bringing them back into the fold!”

“And what good is managing to avoid conflict with Dorne, if we only face the prospect of another with the Westerlands, Ned? This one on our very doorstep even!”

"There is always the issue of Jaimie Lannister. If I enforce the law in his case we may be able to avoid bloodshed in Lord Tywin’s. He should still be in his quarters if I’m not mistaken?” he suggested lightly, even though Ned knew damn well already that the Kingslayer was. With the Sept of Baelor off limits, Robert’s body would have to be temporarily interred in the Red Keep’s sept, and Jaimie would be obligated to stay nearby to guard it. In fact, even as the two men were speaking, the remaining members of the Kingsguard should have already silently dealt with the matter as previously instructed, once they had finished their own meeting with Ser Barristan. Eddard decided he need not bother Jon with a decision that had already been made, however.

“Ned…” Jon Arryn cautioned, slowly emphasizing every word he spoke next. “While I don't doubt the ability of our bannerman if it came down to a fight, they are still exhausted from constant campaigning, while all of Tywin's levies are relatively fresh. And they certainly won't want to take up arms again, just so that Aerys can get justice.”

"Yet by that same measure, how can I fail to also demand justice for the murder of the other Targaryen royal family members? Of my nephew’s brother, sister and stepmother!?"

"He did it on our behalf, Ned!"

"No Jon, he did it for himself and you damn well know it!” Eddard shot back furiously, slamming his hand down on the desk and causing their goblets to shake, before managing to calm himself once again. “All of the other lords know it as well, and will hardly raise a defense for him."

"Be that as it may, Ned,” Jon persisted, his nails digging into the mahogany wood now. “It doesn’t change the fact that if we punish Tywin after he declared for us, many others who also held back before committing at the end will start wondering if you might come for them next. And while most of our lords might disapprove of Tywin’s actions, and mistrust his motives during the Sack, it’s still an entirely different matter from asking them to take up arms once again over it. Not when they have to weigh the possibility of not seeing their own wives and children, after thinking they had finally reached the end of this year’s past madness. More than anything else, they’re just tired and want to settle the matter of the succession so they can go home, Ned. A feeling I’m sure both of us can well relate to,” he wearily finished before slumping back into his chair at last.

Eddard could only grimace. He'd heard all of these arguments from Jon before, after he had first insisted that Robert needed to punish the Lannisters. The following rebuke by Robert had left him furious, causing him to storm out of that accursed throne room where the bodies still lay, and back to his chambers to prepare for his departure. Jon had sought Ned out afterwards, attempting to mend the divide between the two wards who he had raised like sons. He'd reasoned that while horrible and ugly, they needed to move past the Sack for the sake of the realm and to end the war, though Ned had still remained steadfast on the need to uphold justice. Still, his consul had led to Ned at least trying to be civil with Robert in the days prior to his departure south, while Robert attempted to ignore their argument as though it had never happened.

He still felt the same way as he had then. He wanted so badly to do what he knew what was right. What honor and his conscious demanded of him, and according to the very values that Jon Arryn had strived to imbue in him.

But it was easier to say back then, when it wasn't his responsibility to deal with the consequences, as it had been Jon’s. When there wasn't anything or anyone else for Ned to lose. The past month and a half had given him a lot of time to think about these matters though, as he contemplated over and over again each course of action he would need to take, along with the compromises he would have to make, as they drew closer to the capital. And he could not avoid the conclusion that he would find many of them just as unpleasant and distasteful as he did now.

Still noticing the reluctance on his foster son’s expression, Jon Arryn decided to play a card he hadn’t been expecting to burden him with when he first entered these chambers. Then again, their conversation had defied so many of his expectations, what did one more matter? 

“Ned, there’s also something else you should know. We recently just had word from Pyke. Quellon Greyjoy apparently died during that battle at the mouth of the Mander. His son, Balon has claimed the Seastone Chair and lordship over the Iron Islands.”

That bit of news caught Ned’s attention, and he sat up straight now in response. He’d heard nothing of this while passing through the Shield Islands himself, beyond that the battle had largely been inconclusive, and meaningless as the Ironborn had withdrawn almost immediately afterwards. The Shield Islanders had surmised it was because of the high casualties they had inflicted, and the unexpected ferocity of their resistance, which had caught the Ironborn off-guard. Yet the reason behind their retreat now took on a whole new context with this recent information.

Encouraged by the reaction, Jon Arryn began pressing his point. “From everything Varys has told me, Balon Greyjoy is the exact opposite of Lord Quellon. Which means he is very Ironborn. Which, I must stress, is very bad for the rest of us.”

Ned gave him an irritated glance in response. He didn't need Jon to tell him that. The North had a very long and unpleasant (to put it mildly) history with the Ironborn to look back upon for that purpose.

But he was right to be concerned. Ned had largely been counting on typical Ironborn disinterest with mainland affairs while factoring all the other kingdoms during his strategy sessions. But now, under new leadership…

Jon Arryn could read the sudden shift in Ned’s mood and chose to hit home with his final blow. “If conflict erupts again on the mainland, it’s more than likely that Balon will try to take advantage of it, as the Greyjoys are want to do, and tried to do here towards the end of the Rebellion. So we’re looking at the real possibility of fighting on not one, but two different fronts, just as we’re trying to prop up an entirely new rule for the realm the lords will already have misgivings about, going in. It’s too much of a risk right now, Ned. And it’s why I'm begging you, please. Don't. Provoke. Tywin.”

For a long while Ned just had a permanent frown etched on to his face which made Jon Arryn increasingly nervous visibly, before he finally decided to spare his poor foster father with a humorless smile. “You can calm yourself now, Jon. I won't be forcing or taking anything from Tywin Lannister. He's going to give it to me. And quite willingly at that.”

Jon Arryn just blinked “Wha-?”

And then Ned told him his plan.

Ned might really be some mythic animal that couldn't possibly exist, with the way Jon kept staring at him, once he finally finished explaining what he had in mind.

“That is... it's brilliant, Ned! How in the world did you ever come up with such an audacious scheme?”

“Don't give me too much credit now Jon,” Ned drawled, still trying not to be annoyed by this constant state of disbelief that he apparently couldn’t have good ideas. Even if it was true in this case, anyway. “I didn't come up with the notion. In fact, I would never have even considered the possibility unless it had been suggested.”

“But… who then?”

Ned just shook his head. “It’s not for me to say, Jon.”

Sensing the finality in that statement Jon Arryn chose not to pursue the issue further. “Well, there’s certainly quite a lot of merit to the idea. And it would help, tremendously in fact, if you can pull it off. Still…” he hesitated for a moment, before mustering the courage to ask the question that was at the very heart of their discussion.

“Are you sure you're alright with this, Ned?”

Ned takes a long while to answer, staring into his cup pensively as he does. “Alright? No Jon, hardly alright. I've not been alright since I left the Tower of Joy and started down this path. This... this is just the latest in a long line of decision I've come to accept that I have to make though. And I will, for his sake. So no, I'm very far from being alright, but I will get used to it. I have no other choice.”

Jon Arryn considered his foster son again, searching his face to see if it truly was the case, before finally giving a nod of approval. “Alright, then. Let’s go over the exact details during supper, together.” Suddenly, Jon’s eyes averted Ned’s own as he tepidly voiced “There is one more major concern, regarding your nephew’s legiti-,“

"You're speaking of the Faith," Ned interrupted. It wasn’t a question.

Being stared at as if he was some exotic creature from Sothoryos was actually starting to become amusing now, causing Ned to let out a snort at the image. “Lord Commander Gerold is a Hightower Jon, so yes, he did make a point of mentioning it during the trip.”

"Then you’re aware that even if everyone accepts what you say as true, the Faith still has very obvious grounds to object to the dubious nature of your nephew’s legitimacy, and thus the validity of his claim. The last Targaryen to have multiple wives was Maegor the Cruel, and he did not warm the faithful to the notion.”

"No, but they never managed to successfully overrule him on it either," he pointed out.

“The High Septon won't be happy, Ned,” Jon Arryn said in an equally unhappy voice.

"And the High Septon doesn't have the Faith Militant to rely upon anymore Jon, so he'll have to learn to live with being unhappy. Or he may not live at all," he finished darkly.

"Ned!"

"That last part was a joke. Mostly. But I won't allow fanatics or bigots from a religion I don't even follow to endanger my nephew, Jon."

“Regardless, if the Faith refuses to recognize Rhaegar’s second marriage as valid, all of the lords will have an excuse to do the same and deny your nephew as a bastard with no rightful inheritance or claim. Between Prince Viserys, the Dornish, and Tywin Lannister, it is an opening we simply cannot afford to give,” he cautioned.

Ned growled in exasperation. It was just one thing after the other. "The crown has essentially handpicked the High Septon for generations, Jon. Surely, between that influence and our own backing, along with our armies, we can ‘prevail’ upon him to accept Jo-Prince Aegon's legitimacy and his right to the throne. Throw in a healthy ‘donation’ to the Faith and let’s just be done with it already!”

Jon Arryn started kneading his forehead as he pondered over the situation. "I suppose you’re not wrong, though it will still be like pulling teeth. But yes, with a few incentives, the High Septon’s pragmatic enough to see he has no real choice.  Especially if his life is at risk. You seem recently inclined to make a lot of threats actually, Ned. Are you're sure you’ll be able follow through with them, if it should come to that?"

"I am," Ned reaffirmed, the steel in his voice now.

"Even if he agrees, which I concede he likely will however reluctantly, even the High Septon cannot stop the highborn and commoners from thinking it, Ned. And they will,” Jon Arryn warned.

"So long as they do so silently. I can’t control what people think Jon, much as I might wish, nor can I pretend away the circumstances of Jo-Prince Aegon’s birth. All I can do is prevent giving them an excuse to act upon those thoughts."

Jon Arryn raised an eyebrow, before deciding to finally bring the question up now that their conversation was nearing its end. “You’ve made that mistake quite a few times now, Ned. Even introduced the boy with that name. What exactly is this ‘Jon’ business about anyway?”

Ned felt the bristled tension start to ebb from his body as he finally, fully, began to relax. For the first time since their talk had begun, he gave a genuinely warm smile before recounting the tale to his mentor. By the time he finished, his foster father matched his own smile, clearly touched that Ned chose to name the boy after him. Well, his second name anyway, but it was the thought that counted.

For a long while, they sit simply sit there in companionable silence, indulging in this one moment of joyful exchange and peace. The weight of their heavy conversation did return though.

“Jon, I know this is hardly ideal, or what any of us originally planned…”

“The funny thing is Ned, as bad as the situation is, as close as we may be from one misstep straight into total disaster… I’m very proud of you right now.” The older man admitted, beaming at him. “You’ve changed since you last left King’s Landing. I always worried about how unbending you could be at times, how steadfast in your principles you were, even as I admired you for it. But I would often lie awake at night, wondering at what point you would come across a challenge you could neither simply overcome nor retreat from, and if it would be the one to break you. I’m glad I’ll be able to sleep more soundly from now on.”

Ned accepted the compliment awkwardly, unable to really voice just how much those words truly meant to him, especially now.

Eventually, he did manage to break his momentary lapse of silence. “May I entrust organizing the ceremony to you? Along with meeting with Stannis and Hoster privately beforehand, to inform them of our intentions, and convince them to pledge their support?” The Lord Paramounts were the key to everything, if they accepted the new status quo, than all the other minor lords would have no choice but to fall in line.

“Yes, that seems simple enough,” Jon Arryn agreed. “I’ll inform the stewards to prepare the throne room immediately, which shouldn’t cause too much suspicion since the lords and ladies will be expecting it anyway, now that you’re back. It’s lucky the staff never followed through with Robert’s intention to remove the dragon skulls from the walls and into the cellars. Between his recovery and everyone being too busy with repairs to the rest of the Red Keep, we would have had a tricky time retrieving them without anyone noticing otherwise. And once I explain things properly to him, Stannis should have no issue in accepting your nephew’s right to the throne, given his attitude about the rule of law. Likewise for Hoster, between being good-father to both of us, his natural inclination to follow the lead of others, and his general practicality, it shouldn’t be difficult to convince him either. With them, we can slowly begin winning over all of our respective lords to the idea, while being in position to marginalize any potential opposition within our half of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“That’s good to hear. Especially since you’ll also need to be the one to talk with the High Septon as well. To give his blessing at the ceremony.”

"Ned!" Jon repeated, jumping out of his seat again, and looking completely aghast at that prospect.

"I did leave you the easier tasks for a reason, Jon," Ned said, with genuine amusement for the first time. "And I don't imagine I'd be much good at arguing over the finer points of the Faith with the High Septon. Do you?"

The soon-to-be Hand of the King let out a pain filled groan, before giving in to the inevitable and nodding in acquiescence.

Rising out of his own chair now, the two stood in silent companionship for a while, each just wordlessly expressing their gratitude for the others presence and support. Noting the decanter had long since been emptied, Eddard reached for the bottle of Arbor gold, uncorked it, and poured them both one last glass.

Graciously taking it, Jon mirrored Ned’s gesture of saluting with their cups, before both finished off the contents at the same time with one gulp.

As he turned to leave however, Ned’s voice brought him to a sudden halt again.

“Oh, before you do anything else Jon, please send for Lord Varys to come see me. Immediately.”

The polite tone didn’t fool Jon Arryn for a moment, but instead of questioning Ned’s intentions further he simply muttered, “Of course,” and then departed through the door without another word.

 

*****

 

Ned could smell the Spider coming even before he laid eyes upon him, his nose recoiling at the sudden invasive presence of lavender, lilacs, and rosewater in the air.

Looking up from the parchment where he was currently penning a list of offices, names, and potential appointments upon, he saw that the Master of Whisperers had not changed at all since his departure, still wearing his silk, velvet robes and sandals, with the same plump body and bald head as he had before. Yet he couldn’t let his guard down with the eunuch, his appearance and manner could apparently change in an instant based on the accounts of Arthur and his sworn brothers.

“Ah, it is truly good to have you with us again, Lord Stark. I was informed you wished to see me?” the eunuch asked like the picture of innocence and dutiful service.

“You were the one who alerted the Kingsguard about Robert’s death. Do not bother to deny it,” he accused bluntly, not even bothering with any pretense of formality.

Varys blinked as if he was actually surprised. Which he wasn’t. “You misjudge me, my lord. I intended no such thing. I was, after all, the one who tracked Prince Rhaegar down to begin with for King Aerys, so that Ser Gerold could retrieve him. I even provided that same information to you as well, so that you might find your sister. So, it stands to reason that only I would be able to send Ser Arthur here the message regarding Lord Robert's passing, so soon after it had occurred. Especially with Lord Arryn doing his best to prevent word from spreading. My little bird was quite exhausted riding out to reach the Tower of Joy before you had arrived. Perhaps the gods truly do exist, for they must have been smiling upon us, given that he did manage it." He gave his own broad, sweeping smile to both Ned and Arthur in turn. “Now that you have returned, safe and whole, how might I be of service to you?”

Eddard continued to study the eunuch intently, who, to his credit seemed completely unperturbed by Ned’s evaluation, as though his life or death wasn’t currently being weighed at that very moment. Even though it was.

“Of service to me, is it? Tell me, did you not swear a new oath of loyalty to Robert only a few months ago, Lord Varys?” he said with biting contempt.

“Indeed I did, Lord Stark. Which is why I wrote that letter after Lord Robert had already passed. So sad that, though quite fortunate for you, as it turns out.” The eunuch glanced pointedly at the bassinet to Ned’s side with a now sleeping young prince in it.

“And how did you manage to come to that conclusion?” Ned asked, keeping his exact meaning vague, although he doubted it fooled the Spider for a second. 

Varys only chuckled, apparently finding Eddard’s attempts at subterfuge amusing. “As you no doubt already suspect, my lord, I’ve had each of the city gates under careful watch, to alert me the moment you had returned. Oh, but you need not be concerned, as per Lord Arryn’s instructions I had already cleared the areas of all other spies, so no one else knows of your arrival just yet… or more importantly, the curious additions you’ve brought with you.”

“And did you know beforehand, Lord Varys?” Ned retorted, deciding to stop dancing around the matter.

“Truthfully, my lord?” he posed to Ned. When the latter nodded, the eunuch actually let out a frustrated sigh. “No, I did not.” The admission seemed to visibly cause him pain. “When I sent that letter, I thought I was simply reaching out to the last remnants of the Kingsguard. I had hoped the gesture would be the first step in allowing me to recruit them to my cause later on, once they had made their escape. At the time, I simply surmised that they were keeping your sister confined on Prince Rhaegar’s orders… never imagining that they were in fact, protecting the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. I did not peg the late Crown Prince to be such an adherent to his family’s traditions… like taking multiple wives.”

Ser Arthur’s hand suddenly reached behind his back and tightened around Dawn’s pommel, but the eunuch still maintained his same serene expression.

“And what is your cause exactly, Lord Varys? You seem to have so many, jumping from king to king, from side to side. From Aerys to Robert. And now to me? How can I trust someone with your… shifting loyalties,” Ned questioned sharply, his eyes searching for any sign that might let him get a better read of the man’s intent.

Under the Lord of Winterfell’s cold gaze, the Spider bowed humbly. “Why, my cause has always been the same, my lord. Peace. Peace and order, for the people and the realm. I swear it by my lost manhood that, even if you should doubt everything else about me, never doubt that. It is the realm that I serve above all else. And as it seems that you, and your nephew, are what is best for the realm, I swear that I will serve you, faithfully and truly, and dedicate my all to seeing your reigns prosper. Because I know there is no better chance for the people or the realm, then the both of you.”

It was an admirable answer. If a treacherous one still. Even if he was telling the truth, there was no guarantee that he would always believe Ned and Jo-Prince Aegon, were what was best for the realm, or his interpretation of it anyway. “And if I should think that the realm would be better served by cutting off your treasonous head and putting it on a spike?” Ned mused idly.

“Then I would gladly bring the block and wash my neck for your convenience, my lord.”

Eddard tsked at the man’s lowered profile. His threats were a bluff and Varys knew it. Though his suspicions and mistrust of the eunuch were of the highest order, Ned recognized that he, more than anyone else, needed the Spider's web of information and influence if he wanted to have any hope of staying in power.

Grudgingly, he decided to finally end this farce of an inquiry, though he would not be taking his eye off the eunuch any time soon. “Then I would have you prove your newfound loyalty, immediately. Starting with finding the names of all the men directly involved in the murders of Princess Elia and her children.”

The eunuch let out a delighted giggle upon hearing his new orders. Perplexed by the man’s sudden bout of mirth Ned was about to ask what was so funny, before the Spider pulled out a wrapped scroll of parchment and placed it on the desk right in front of Eddard. “I anticipated your request as soon as you had sent word to Jon Arryn of your return, my lord. Your outcry over the deaths of the royal family and dispute with Lord Robert was rather infamous by the time you had departed south, so I thought it prudent to begin my investigation and have this list ready for you upon your arrival, Lord Stark.”

Ned just let out an inexplicit grunt of acknowledgement as he reached for the list, torn between being both impressed and unnerved at just how well the Spider had anticipated events. And wary at how efficiently he had hedged his bets by preparing just the right bargaining chips.

Still, his antipathy towards the Master of Whisperers could not prevent the feeling of satisfaction washing over him as Ned felt the weight of the parchment in his hands.

“Well done, in that case. However, next time be aware you will have an escort accompanying you wherever you go whilst carrying out your duties, probably one of the Kingsguard when available since you’ll likely need a more discreet presence given your line of work. A permanent watch will also be established at your chambers, and they will be checking on you at random intervals to ensure you’re still in there. I apologize for any discomfort this may bring, but you’ll simply have to endure it until I am satisfied that you truly will honor your pledge.” 

Varys acceded to that demand easily enough, with a polite nod of acknowledgement. Part of Ned wondered just how effective such measures would truly be. But he’d given the eunuch fair warning now, so he would have no excuse for the consequences if he was caught next time. Hopefully that would be enough to at least keep him in check.

“Since you’ve already taken care of this first matter, I’ll be assigning you to the task of using your contacts in Essos to locate and recall all the previously exiled lords under Aerys and kept there by Robert. Lord Owen Merryweather, Jon Connigton, etc. But especially Lord Connigton.” Arthur had been rather insistent on the latter’s return, and Ned could have use for a man so staunchly loyal to the memory of the late Prince Rhaegar.  

Flicking his cup to point at the eunuch now, he added, "I'll also need you to collect all your notes on notable individuals of the realm together. Combine them into general summaries for myself and Lord Arryn to look over later."

Varys bowed deeply in obedience, his arms pushed outward while disappearing into the opposite sleeves of his robe. "Of course, my lord. I’ll set my little mice in the Free Cities to it at once. And are there any specific individuals’ reports that you wish for me to work on right now?"

"Just the current High Septon, Lord Tywin Lannister... and Lord Mace Tyrell, by late supper tonight anyway." Ned listed in a seemingly nonchalant tone.

The Spider didn't miss the implication of that last name however, bringing his head back up with an intrigued gaze. "I will see to it immediately, my lord," allowing a small, impressed smile to form over his powdered cheeks.

As he got up and made his way to leave however, Varys abruptly stopped at the entrance to turn back to Ned, and delivered one final gift to celebrate their new partnership. “Oh, my apologies my lord. With all the excitement of your arrival I nearly forgot to inform you of something in my role as your Master of Whisperers now.”

A bit taken aback at the Spider actually volunteering information for free, Ned felt his guard go up, but couldn’t prevent his curiosity from eventually asking. “And what else did you feel the need to tell me this evening, Lord Varys?”

“I would recommend you do something regarding Grand Maester Pycelle, my lord. He was the one who convinced King Aerys to open the city gates to Lord Tywin’s army prior to your own arrival, which directly led to the Sack. In fact, he has been an informant for Lord Tywin ever since his tenure as Hand of the King, and long after he left that office. I can provide you with all the necessary evidence, if you wish to pursue the matter further.”

Ned was so dumb struck by the sudden discovery that a maester of the Citadel had so thoroughly betrayed all his sacred oaths and vows, that he couldn’t even question the eunuch as to when exactly he had learned all of this and why he never informed Aerys or Robert before now. Instead he just nodded his head mutely, which Varys seemed to take as leave to go, and bowed once mored before promptly disappearing from the chamber.

Slumping back into his chair, completely spent by the recent ordeal, Ned stared pensively at his reflected image in the red liquid of his cup for a time, feeling equally reflective on this latest revelation. Rolling the stem of the glass between his fingers, back and forth, as he weighed his options, he finally turned to address the man at his side.

“Arthur?”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Arrest Grand Maester Pycelle. Quietly… but immediately.”

There was a pause. Clearly, he had caught the Sword of the Morning off guard. “On what charge, my lord?”

Ned drained the rest of his cup, before crashing it back down with authority. “For conspiracy in the death of Robert Baratheon.”

 

Chapter Text

Ned and Jon Arryn broke their fast in the latter’s solar within the Tower of the Hand early the following morning. Today would probably be the most critical moment of their lives, and they needed to ensure everything went off as perfectly as possible. Nearly all of the lords and ladies present in King’s Landing would be arriving soon for tonight’s event. Even as they were left in the dark as to the exact purpose for the gathering. Most were still under the impression that, with word of Ned’s return now having spread, that they were finally proceeding with the logical step of calling a Great Council at last. Nor were they aware that both Ned and Jon Arryn had secretly transferred their personal household retinues from their respective camps into the Red Keep, throughout the previous night. Once all of the guests were inside, their men had orders to seal the castle off behind them. No one would be getting in or out until the evening’s ceremony was over, and they had all sworn their fealty. One way or another.

They were in the middle of going over last minute details for the respective meetings in the afternoon, along with a list of potential appointments for both major and minor offices to both rebuild the realm’s administration and dole out the necessary favors to various minor lords in order to buy off their support, when a panting steward very short of breath interrupted.

Both of them immediately jumped out of their chairs, Ned rushing over to the entrance and taking the sealed scroll the steward held out. There was only one reason to interrupt them so abruptly and it caused Ned’s hands to shake slightly upon seeing the red sealing wax with the image of the three headed dragon fastened onto the rolled up letter. Immediately breaking it, Ned quickly began reading through the contents as he dismissed the steward and made his way back to his seat, with Jon Arryn anxiously following suit.

“Well? What did she say?” the older man inquired, staring at the parchment in Ned’s hands from across the breakfast table, clearly nervous. Neither of them had actually expected Queen Rhaella to respond quite so soon, though both were glad for it. The sooner they could resolve the matter of reunifying the two branches of House Targaryen, the sooner they could deal with other potential problems behind a singular purpose, rather than constantly worrying if the other side would turn on them instead.

Ned’s reaction as he read seemed to kindle that hope. “She says that she’s read and understands the implications of our last series of messages. She also says that she accepts our invitation back to King’s Landing, so that she might ascertain for herself if the boy truly is her grandson, provided my offer of safe conduct is still in place. She actually underlines that last portion,” he mentioned with a smile.

Jon matched it with one of his own. “Your reputation for integrity does proceed you, Ned. Perhaps she even heard the tale about how you protested the deaths of her good-daughter and grandchildren. It was all anyone gossiped about in the Red Keep after you left.”  

“Aye, I suppose honesty does pay off from time to time after all. She also says she will be willing to surrender Viserys crown and her own as his Queen Regent if she concludes that is indeed the case, and is prepared to acknowledge Jon as the rightful heir. No mention about my own status as regent for the lad, but we can work out that detail later when she arrives. She even says that she will be bringing Viserys too, along with…” Ned’s voice suddenly dropped, his eyes going wide as saucer plates.

“What? What is it?’ Jon questioned with something approaching a mild case of panic now, wondering what condition the Queen might have added and if it could potentially jeopardize everything just as they were coming so close to an agreement.

Mutely, Ned just handed the letter over to Jon as he leaned onto his chair rest, holding up his head while idly massaging it with his fingers as he tried to process what he had just read.

Quickly the Lord of the Eyrie scanned through the contents until he reached the part Ned had left off at. His head immediately recoiled in shock, slumping back into his seat while dropping the letter onto his lap in disbelief.

“The Queen is… she… she’s….”

“Pregnant,” Ned finished with a barely held whisper.

And just as quickly, Jon Arryn sat back up, leaning forward across the table excitedly now. "This... this could change everything, Ned!"

"We don't know that, Jon. She doesn’t give any indication about the gender in the letter. Another prince would complicate things slightly, but no more than when we discussed how to deal with the issue of Prince Viserys," he tried to temper with an even voice, though it was facade crumbling fast under the weight of Ned's own conflicted emotions.

Clearly his reaction confused his foster father as well. "But if it's a girl, Ned..."

"We have no guarantee of that written anywhere, Jon," he said flatly, almost in denial really.

"Be that as it may," Jon persisted. "Rhaella wouldn't have explicitly mentioned it here if it wasn't relevant. So if it is a girl, then it could solve nearly every issue regarding concerns over your nephew's legitimacy moving forward."

"I know!" Ned exclaimed harshly under his breath, more so than he intended. Realizing this, Ned pulled back into his seat to meet his foster father’s eyes at last, his tone apologetic. "I know, Jon."

He could tell something was wrong. Up until now Ned had rushed through every problem he’d faced boldly, and head on. Always taking action, instead of allowing himself to ponder. To doubt.

Now he was being plagued by nothing but indecision.

“Ned, what’s wrong? We should be happy about such a possibility, so why-?”

Ned let a frustrated growl. “Because it’s only a possibility. If we commit to holding out for such an uncertainty, we lose one of our best bargaining pieces, especially for this afternoon’s meeting. And we need this particular meeting to go well, almost as much as we need to shore up my nephew’s legitimacy.”

“You’re worried about losing out on a certain short term gain, for only a potential long term one,” Jon realized.    

"Given the timing, and that she’s willing to travel here in her condition, it’ll likely still be months before the babe is born, when we need that support now. How are we supposed to make decisions based on what ifs? Can we afford to risk it, Jon?"

"We can't afford not to,” Jon Arryn stated, without a moment’s hesitation. “Acceptance of your nephew's legitimacy is at the center of everything, Ned. It has to be ironclad, if it’s to withstand the pressure that’s almost certain to come. Everything else we do will fall apart anyway if it isn’t.”

"The plan was-"

"I know what the plan was, Ned. But things don't always go to plan. You've had some well thought out ones up to this point, that's true, but you also have to be ready to adapt when new circumstances arise if you hope to survive in this office," his foster father chastised.

Seeing that Eddard was still hesitating, Jon Arryn leaned back into his chair, and gave a wary sigh. “It’s not that I don’t understand your trepidation, Ned. Even if we exclude the possibility of another son, there’s always the chance the babe may not even survive, given the Queen’s previous history with childbirth. This isn't a decision with a simple answer you can just use sheer force of will to solve, like you have been up till now. What's required here isn't swords, or money, but the subtle art of negotiation."

Ned proceeded to throw his head back, looking up at the ceiling while covering his face with his hands as he groaned in exasperation. “We just need more time, and it’s the one thing we’re absolutely short on, Jon! We can’t delay the ceremony, otherwise everyone will discover our intentions, and have a chance to organize and mount an opposition. And we can’t go through with the ceremony without those commitments in place, which we will have no guarantee of receiving without my nephew’s han-!”

“Then we’ll just have to change tactics for this afternoon, and find a way to buy us that additional time.” The soon-to-be Hand of the King said calmly, mulling over the issue now.

Times like these were why Ned had always been grateful for having Jon Arryn to lean on. Even yesterday, when most would have had difficulty simply processing everything that had happened, Jon kept his composure and just diligently worked through every issue that came up.    

After a few minutes, he suddenly smiled, startling Ned. "And I think I might have an idea on how to do just that, actually.”

 

*****

 

It was never easy to surprise a man like Tywin Lannister. So Ned didn’t even bother to suppress the feeling of immense satisfaction welling up inside of him as he witnessed the man’s furrowed golden brows shoot straight up at the sight of Ser Gerold greeting him past the opened chamber door. Just as the Warden of the West was trying to recompose himself however, his brows froze where they were as the Lord Commander moved aside to reveal Ser Arthur standing beside Ned as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

And then his nostrils flared at the sight of the bassinet and squirming babe inside.

Trust Tywin Lannister to recognize the full implication after one glance. And the danger he was now in.

Ned had to admit a reluctant admiration at how the Lord of Casterly Rock still managed to quickly smooth his features out back to their usual stoic form once again as he stiffly walked inside, despite the circumstances. Ned noted those harsh features had not changed since he’d last seen the Lion of Lannister, with the same tall, slim body and broad shoulders, along with the bald head that he kept shaved, though maintaining his bushy golden side whiskers. Finally, Ned gestured towards the chair in front of the desk.  

"Lord Stark," Lord Tywin nodded before taking the offered seat. His cold green eyes lingered on the bassinet for a time, watching as little Jon fidgeted in his swaddling clothes, before returning to face Ned.

"I see your trip down south proved more... fruitful, than any of us had imagined."

“It was eventful to say the least, Lord Tywin. Though not without its losses. My sister ended up losing her life in giving birth to her son.”

“My condolences,” he replied, without a hint of actual sympathy in his tone.

Ned waved off the false courtesy. Polite banter was useless between these two men, and Ned didn’t care to bother with the pretense. Especially since it wouldn’t last. “I’ve grieved enough my lord, as have many during this war. Which is why I’ve asked to meet with you today. To discuss the future of this country… and how best to avoid repeating the tragedies of the past.”

It was subtle, but Ned didn’t think he was mistaken in noticing the sudden increase in tension throughout Tywin’s frame.

“As you have no doubt already guessed, my lord, my nephew Prince Aegon is the trueborn son of the late Crown Prince Rhaegar, which makes him the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. The formal announcement will be made later this evening, where the other lords and ladies will be able to swear their oaths of loyalty afterwards.”

“I see,” Tywin supplied in a neutral tone. “And do you believe the other lords and ladies will share that opinion, my lord?” he challenged.

“Their opinions do not change the facts,” Ned answered frostily. “There are no other viable options now with Robert’s passing, as you well know, my lord.”

Tywin visibly scowled now at the reminder of Stannis’ rebuttal to his offer of marrying his daughter Cersei, and assuming the throne himself. Before Ned had left King’s Landing he was aware the Lord Paramount of the Westerlands had already been angling for the same thing with Robert, even as Robert refused to hear of it while holding out hope of retrieving Lyanna, ruined or not. With this second rejection Eddard had no doubt House Baratheon had forever earned the ire of the Lion of Lannister.

It was time to ensure House Stark joined that list.

“I’m sure you would agree that it is of vital importance that we reestablish the royal line as quickly as possible my lord, to calm the confusion and chaos of the past year. Yet given the tender years of my nephew, it would be prudent-,”

Tywin’s patience finally ran out. “Have the courtesy to call this what it is Stark, a blatant power grab. Embellishing does not suit you at all,” he cut off bitterly, barely concealing the envy dripping out from his voice. “You obviously plan to name yourself as Lord Regent. Only a fool would fail to do otherwise when presented with such an opportunity, so I cannot fault you for that. Now, what is it that you want from me specifically, regarding this matter?”

Eddard flashed a rare, sharp smile now. “Your willing and public support for my elevation, to begin with my lord.”

“And why should I do that?” the Lord of Casterly Rock sneered, though his bravado did not hide the quick glance he gave towards Arthur and Dawn’s hilt peeking out from his side.

“For your son Jaimie, to start. He’s currently confined within his chamber’s in the White Sword Tower as we speak, awaiting sentencing for the crime of regicide,” Ned retorted with complete bluntness.

Eddard noticed Tywin’s grip constrict harder around his chair rest now, though he maintained the same granite etching across his face.

 “I had an understanding with Robert that my son would be given a full pardon for his service to the Realm,” he attempted to bluff. The sinking look in his green eyes told Ned that Tywin knew how weak the ground his argument was standing on actually was though.

“Which Robert never issued, as he had not formally ascended to the throne at the time of that process. As you are well aware, my lord,” Eddard countered softly, not hiding the edge laced in his words and the warning within. He would not allow Tywin a single opening to wiggle free now that he was firmly nailed into the ground. And Ned would hammer that in for all it was worth.

If Tywin was concerned at all about the weak legal platform, he didn’t let it show. “Are you threatening me, Stark?” he growled out instead.

“Merely stating our respective positions, my lord. While I would prefer to uphold Robert's wishes on this matter to the rest of the royal court, I also cannot simply just ignore the death of a previous king either. From a member of his own Kingsguard no less. And as Ser Jaimie has already admitted to the deed, we needn’t bother with the formality of a trial, and can proceed straight to the sentencing.”

“Who are you to sit in judgement of my son, Stark!? Of me!?” Tywin snarled out harshly. “You, with Robert and Jon Arryn, plunged the entire realm into rebellion against that same king while dragging the rest of us along with you. Tell me that it didn’t serve your interests to see members of my family take the burden of disposing of Aerys, a lawful sitting king, on your behalf!? Do you think the realm will fail to mark you for the self-righteous hypocrite you are?” 

"Be that as it may, my lord, whether I wanted it or not, my position has changed from where I was a year ago. Something you should no doubt appreciate, given your past friendship with King Aerys.” Ned retorted back frostily, causing Tywin to narrow his eyes in return at the deliberate strike on that old wound. “And as both a Lord and Warden, I can only exact justice under the law given the current circumstances. I have no authority, yet anyway, to issue a royal pardon myself."

"Ah. So it would benefit everyone if you were established in such a position. To handle such complicated legal matters on our behalf, is it?" Tywin mocked, scathingly.

"I'm sure you can sympathize with the burdens one must shoulder, my lord. For the good of the realm, of course," he returned, letting the sarcasm absolutely drip from his voice now. Though Ned cared little for the double talk of the court, he had to admit, it was rather enjoyable agitating the mighty Tywin Lannister.

"And if I refuse to give it?" Tywin injected acidly. Though he obviously already knew the answer, he seemed determined to be as difficult as possible regardless.

Ned quickly slapped his defiance back down with not a little satisfaction. "You mistake me once again, my lord. I'm simply trying to clarify the natural result of either giving or withholding your allegiance. The decision is entirely up to you... and makes no real difference to me. Either way, you will be assisting me in proceeding forward, regardless. That much I can promise you."

Meaning Tywin's severed head serving as an example would be just as useful, if somewhat riskier, in Ned's consolidation of power as Tywin 'willingly' lending his support. It was a tactic the Lord of Casterly Rock was all too familiar with since the Rains of Castamere after all.

Tywin's jaw contorted for a moment as his barely suppressed rage started to bubble up again, before inhaling and then exhaling deeply from his flared nostrils, managing to calm himself at last. "Fine, Stark. I will admit, your little princeling’s veneer of legitimacy gives you the advantage right now. So I will concede to your... logic. It's likely too late to stop you, given you’ve already entrapped and separated me and every other lord here from the rest our men. Very clever of you. So I'll spare myself from giving you the excuse and satisfaction of finally exacting your 'justice' on my House, along your way." He spat the word justice out like it was poison on his tongue.

“But you would do well to be mindful of how far you can continue to trample all over those in your way, Stark, before your shining reputation for integrity fades, and everyone begins to label you the monster in my stead. And of how long until they turn on you for it."

It was strange, hearing Tywin Lannister of all people advise against cultivating a reputation for ruthlessness. But it was obvious he was actually baiting Ned, testing to see just how far he was willing to go, while simultaneously warning him of the consequences should Ned actually follow through. Ned refused to rise to it, he had already won the first battle after all.

It was time to win the second.

Smoothing out the ruffles along the sleeves of his tunic for a moment to regather himself, Ned gave out the expected meaningless platitude to start, hoping it would lower Tywin’s guard again for the next blow. “Your cooperation is very much appreciated, my lord. I am sure that together, we will bring peace back to our troubled lands, and turn the page on a new chapter in our history.”

All he got back was a disinterested grunt of affirmation, as Tywin held the left side of his face against his thumb and index fingers, while hiding his mouth behind the rest, studying Ned intently and cautiously. Cleary he was readying himself for what came next.

Ned chose to dispense with subtlety. “In the interest of turning that page however, we must resolve any… lingering issues that would prevent us from moving on. And become a potential source for future divisions. The most likely of which will come from Dorne. Which is why I would like to readdress the events surrounding the Sack again… and the deaths of the royal family.”

Tywin seemed to grimace, but also did not appear surprised by the topic. “As I explained before, Lord Stark, I had no prior knowledge of the unfortunate event regarding Princess Elia and the Targaryen childr-“

“My nephew’s brother and sister,” Ned interrupted pointedly before deliberately placing his hand on the weaved edge of Jon’s bassinet.

Tywin’s cold eyes narrowed at that reminder of the new reality, but continued on. “Regardless, I stand by my statement. And categorically deny any accusation of involvement in the matter. Such things simply happen in war, Lord Stark. Surly your northerners have not been exempt from similar occurrences?” Tywin shrugged unconcerned, deliberately trying to downplay the scale of his army’s depredations. He seemed to believe his acquiescence gave him some form of leverage now.

Ned quickly moved to disabuse him of that notion. “Perhaps, yet the responsibility still remains. And is not a lack of discipline in ones men the responsibility of their commander?” he tried to ask politely, though he wasn’t sure he’d managed to entirely erase his disgust at Tywin’s callous attitude.

Tywin’s returning stare was absolutely mutinous now, causing Ned to smile internally even as he maintained a face of seeming obliviousness. Unlike many other lords who relied almost solely on their peasant levies and a small handful of experienced knightly retainers, Tywin had built the Lannister army from the ground up, installing a level of discipline and training unmatched by any other force currently in Westeros. He of all people could not legitimately refute Ned’s reasoning after spending so much time and money on the endeavor, and thus that same dedication to turn them into professional soldiers made him responsible for their actions, regardless of whether he claimed ignorance of ordering the Sack or not.

“A point, Lord Stark” Tywin conceded in an almost pained voice, though he quickly countered. “Yet, I cannot simply punish my entire army over the actions of a few, nor do we know who those few-“  

"Ser Gregor Clegane, Ser Amory Lorch, and all the men currently under their direct command," Eddard cut in testily. He was getting tired of these games.

His jaw now tightened in a grimace, and reluctant respect. "I see you had Lord Varys working on your behalf overnight. Impressive."

“He may have picked up a rumor or two,” Ned tried to brush off, grudgingly impressed Tywin could immediately deduce Varys involvement from only one spoken line.

“Lord Stark, rumors are abound right now. I caution you in relying purely on hearsay and… whispers. Without solid proof that these accusations ar-

“If you or the accused have any objections to the charges, my lord, then we can simply hold a trial here in court, where I can present all the evidence for yours, and the realm's, inspection. I'm sure we will learn the truth of the matter in due time, and I suspect House Martell would not object to such a request.”

For the first time since Tywin Lannister walked in and sat in this room, Ned saw panic creep into the man’s eyes. Perhaps… even fear.

Until now, Tywin could at least be reasonably certain Eddard would not kill him outright, however much he might personally want to, in order to avoid an image of tyranny along with igniting a new civil war, so long as Tywin avoided giving him an excuse. But if the truth behind the Sack were to be dragged out into the public light however, the outrage and disgust would sweep even those lords who were ambivalent over his actions, and compel many of them to condemn him. And Ned could transfer that outrage into support, turning a costly and only potentially marginal victory, into an all but certain one.

Yet, he would not be Tywin Lannister if he could not quickly smother that flicker out and immediately regroup however. Which he still was, and did.

“And if these men were to come into your custody, my lord? What then?” he demanded.

“I would condemn them to death before the court, and then hand them over to an emissary from House Martell, to be returned to Sunspear where they will carry out the sentence.”

Tywin was not pleased by that answer. “Then that would lead to the same end as your ‘trial’. The dornish will peel out a false confession in order to taint my good name, once they have them in their grasp. So why should I simply hand them over for your little mummer’s farce, Stark?” Tywin argued angrily, almost daring Ned now.

Eddard did not hesitate to answer with absolute viciousness in every word.

“If not, I will simply sentence your son in their place after all. And then I will personally cut off his head before mounting it on a spike outside the Red Keep as you watch. And if you attempt to object, or call your banners against me, I will immediately mark you as a traitor to the realm, and have yours mounted right alongside his. I’m sure the Martells will be quite happy to take your skull in place of your dogs back to Dorne instead, if that were the case. Also, if it was not clear before my lord, now I am threatening you.”

Tywin face blanched for a moment, and then stormed out from his chair right up to Eddard, slamming his fist atop the desk with unbridled rage. Ned raised his hand at the sudden sound of swords being unsheathed, freezing both Ser Gerold and Arthur in place as they each took one respective, menacing step forward; grips tight around their handles in midair.

Tywin paid them no notice, his eyes burning like wildfire and completely fixed upon Ned. “Do you really think I would ever allow you to intimidate me, Stark!? That the wolf can order the lion like one of the sheep!? Or that I value my life so much that I would trade away the pride and dignity of my House like a dockside whore?! I will tear down everything you try to build, even in death, before I ever let that happen again!!” Tywin roared in Ned’s grim and unmoving face.

Ned let out a snort of dismissal, completely unperturbed by Tywin’s tirade. If anything he felt more confident in his belief that he had the Warden of the West exactly where he wanted him, if Tywin’s impassive façade was finally starting to crack.

 Still, it wouldn’t do to be overconfident in the strength of his position. An angry and humiliated lion needed to be handled cautiously. So Ned finally put down his whip to give the lion his carcass offering.

“I simply stopped to answer your question, my lord. You did not let me finish. Because in exchange for your cooperation, I am willing to give you what you desire most.”

At that, Tywin looked incredulous, slowly falling back into his chair clearly wondering what Ned was getting at. “And what is it you think I desire that somehow only you can provide, Stark?”

“The same thing you’re afraid I will take away from you. Your son.”

Tywin started at that. “Excuse me?”

“To put it simply I will, on my authority as Lord Regent, release your son from his obligations and duties as a member of the Kingsguard.”

“The Kingsguard serve for life,” Tywin recited blankly as if he thought Ned had clearly forgotten that fact.

“And the Kingsguard are also supposed to guard the king’s life,” Ned pointed out sarcastically.

Tywin clamped his jaw tightly, unamused, but his silence signaled no retort was forthcoming, so Ned continued.

“While it would be unprecedented, your son’s case is unique enough to warrant the consideration. Provided that I am still able to issue his pardon, in any event. In which case, his dismissal remedy’s both our concerns. Yours regarding the succession within House Lannister, and I managing to excise a black mark from the institution of the Kingsguard.”

"I'm surprised you of all people would offer such a compromise, Stark," Tywin said, showing the first signs of actually being somewhat impressed.

Ned didn't respond to the observation at first. He was too busy wrestling with the disgust and self-loathing he felt inside his gut for the deal he was about to make. It had cost him many sleepless nights coming to terms with himself after the idea had been first presented to him from the most unlikely of sources.

 “Just let him go,” Ser Gerold stated plainly.

“What!!?” Ned cried out before he could stop, only catching himself afterwards and mumbled an apology. It was late in the evening, with everyone but the nightshift crew above deck having already turned in, while Ned and the Kingsguard were conspiring in a barely lit corner inside the ship’s hold.

Yet none of his other confederates blamed Ned for his outburst, especially given what they had just heard and who it was coming from. Ser Oswell and even Ser Arthur, who had been the closest to Jaimie amongst the Kingsguard, were completely aghast at the suggestion and vehemently began their own protests.

 Ser Gerold continued as if none of them had interrupted him. 

“Jaimie Lannister should never have been part of the Kingsguard at his age, and certainly not to Aerys Targaryen's. He was still too green and too much of a dreamer.”

He then turned his head sharply to face Arthur. “You know of what I speak, Arthur. The boy admired you more than any one of us.”

At that, Arthur paused. He turned away and began staring pensively at the floor now. Ned was almost certain a dozen memories shared between the Young Lion and the Sword of the Morning were now flooding through his mind at that moment.

Ser Gerold took advantage of the momentary lapse of silence to drive his point home. “Believe me when I say it pains me to say the words as much as for all of you to hear them. That I would like nothing more than to see Tywin Lannister's head on a spike for his betrayal in committing that atrocity in King's Landing. But we cannot afford another civil war before we have even had a chance to recover from the first! We have a duty to protect the living and the future before we can think of avenging the dead, as Rhaegar himself wanted when he left us behind.”

The silence extended itself now, forcing Ned, Oswell, and Arthur to lean or sit on their respective perches to contemplate his words.

“And besides, we must ensure far more gruesome crimes are answered for first,” Ser Gerold finished grimily.

He turned back to face Ned.

“Strip him of the damn cloak and be done with it. Let that be punishment enough. As Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, you will have my full support.”

Ned and Ser Gerold held each other’s gaze from a long time, mentally contesting the strength of each other’s convictions. But it was Ned who eventually acceded with a small tilt of his head, which Ser Gerold returned.

Yet the White Bull still had one last piece of advice to give. “Understand that Tywin Lannister will pay any price to have his son and heir back, Lord Stark. To preserve his legacy. So make a long list.”

"Sometimes we surprise ourselves with what we are capable of, when pushed towards the edge."

"Indeed," Tywin seemed to agree amicably, though the hint of warning that the situation could reverse itself if Ned pushed the Lord of Casterly Rock to his limit again was evident in his tone.

Ned remained unfazed by Tywin’s subtle bravado. It wouldn’t last, and Ned was eager to move on to that more pleasant task. But Tywin Lannister was not one to miss an opportunity to seize back the momentum now that it presented itself to him again. And he did, with all the hunger of a lion running down its prey. 

“And you will not pursue this matter any further afterwards? There will be no more inquiries of any other involvement once the men are in your custody?” he questioned, suspicious, though with a clear hint of interest now.

“The Crown would, on its face… accept your previous explanations on the matter, my lord,” Ned managed to force through his clenched teeth, though it still galled him to even utter the words.

“And I would have your word on that?” Tywin insisted sharply.

This was the moment, the question Ned had been dreading to hear since he first agreed to Ser Gerold’s proposal. Ned’s word was his bond. If he gave it then he would honor it, no matter the consequences, and Tywin knew that all too well. Now, the responsibility of letting Tywin Lannister escape all culpability for his crimes would fall squarely onto Ned’s shoulders. He would have to live with that guilt, that betrayal of justice, for the rest of his days.

The soft cries beside him reminded Ned why the decision had already been made.  

For a while, Tywin simply leaned back into his chair and carefully measured Eddard’s reaction. After his long moment of agonizing internal struggle had finally passed, he gave a slow nod of acquiescence.

Tywin returned it politely enough. After all, he had clearly won out on this exchange. “Then for the sake of our new... understanding, Lord Stark, I would like to speak with the accused privately before you hand them over to House Martells custody. I will ensure they give a full, and truthful, confession prior to the dornish delegations arrival for the record… so that they cannot rescind it afterwards.”

Ned had to take a long, final fortifying breathe, before getting on with it. "Granted," he conceded, cutting off the last of his regret over another hard decision. And another sin on his conscious.

Eager to extract himself from this distasteful collaboration to bury the truth, Eddard decided he would take his time to relish this next moment. “There is one other matter we must take care of before I can send you and your son along your way back to Casterly Rock, my lord. Regarding your responsibility”

The sense of triumph permeating from Tywin earlier instantly gave way to an air of caution now. One victory did not change his disadvantage, but he would not make it easy for Ned, whatever he wanted. “I believe I’ve already given you your ‘justice’, my lord.”

“For the murder of Princess Elia and her children. Not for the Sack itself.”

“And again, my lord, do you expect me to punish my entire army for a… momentary lapse? One that occurs in every war? After they marched here in support of your cause?” he challenged now.

 Ned’s pleasant smile caused Tywin to halt his condescension. His next words would completely erase it. “Of course not my lord. That would be impractical and ill-advised for all involved. Which is why it would be simpler for you to merely pay for all the damages caused to King’s Landing in the course of your support. Which also includes compensating the city’s residents for their losses, and provide them with a fund to help reestablish themselves and their livelihoods.” 

Tywin went completely still.

Ned had now drawn the line. Tywin Lannister would give up every man in his army without a second thought if it gave him an advantage. But his gold… his gold was the very bedrock of House Lannister’s power. Yet the fund was the most crucial element Ned needed to come away with from this meeting. While justice for Princess Elia and her children were of great personal imperative to Ned, along with placating Dorne, it was secondary to the more immediate concern regarding any misgivings the common people of the capital might have about the succession. All their potential objections would be rendered mute with the promise of fistfuls of gold shoved into their faces.

"Compensation!? For lowborn commoners!?" Tywin snapped now, completely incredulous. He looked fit to gag at the very notion.

"For subjects under the direct care of the crown," Ned reminded, starting to enjoy himself.

“If you do not wish to make willing restitution, which the crown will accept anonymously so that you might avoid any appearance of admitting guilt, we could hold an official inquiry instead. Likely it would condemn you in the eyes of the entire realm. Then I would have no choice but to hold you and your son indefinitely, until such time as your House makes good on the debt. Lannisters do still always pay their debts, don’t they my lord?”

Personally Ned would have liked nothing more than to do just that. But it would potentially make lords and soldiers nervous and unwilling to fight in any potential future war if they were expected to pay for the damages they caused along the way. More importantly, a secret transfer would allow Ned to claim all the credit on Jon’s behalf in the eyes of the city’s residents, bolstering the image and support for the crown. Rather than whisper about ungodly marriages or potential bastards taking the throne, the people would instead sing the boy's praises in lieu of their good fortune. And Ned fully planned to make sure Tywin’s freedom cost him a fortune.

The Lion of Lannister’s brief listlessness gave way to a barely held fury. But he held it in, likely to avoid his own words being used against him again.

Using the momentary pause, Ned reached over to place a rolled up scroll of parchment in front of the Lord of Casterly Rock. Tywin scowled before reluctantly taking and unfurling it out of sheer morbid curiosity now. His scowl soon gave way to a pale sickness that soon spread once he began to read.

“…. ‘to give an amount as sufficiently needed!!?’ What is this Stark!? There's no number on this agreement!”

Ned shrugged, as though that was somehow a perfectly normal occurrence. “We haven't had a chance to discuss and calculate a final tally for repairing the city yet, what with all the recent chaos unfortunately. And I thought it best to leave some leeway in the event of unexpected costs along the way. Or should opportunities to make improvements arise as well.”

Ned heard the parchment crumple so hard he wondered if it had turned to dust in Tywin’s grasp. No matter, he had several more copies at the ready and continued uninterrupted.

“We'll also need flexibility in the final amount, if we are to meet the needs of the necessary restitution. The citizens of King’s Landing have suffered much during the recent tragedy after all, and we must account for their obvious distress and discomfort during the resettlement. I of course assume that won’t be a problem though. You can certainly afford it, my lord.”

And with that, Ned held out a new copy and a quill. “Our account will be balanced after this. So in the interest of avoiding an even greater cost and putting this behind us, please sign it my lord.”

The sour twist on Tywin’s face made it seem as if he had swallowed a whole bowl of lemons, but he took the offered feather nonetheless and scratched his name on the document. Then he pressed his ring seal onto the hot wax Ned ‘graciously’ poured next to it, before throwing the quill down hard onto the desk in absolute disgust.

"Go on then, Stark. Take your blood price. May all that ill-gotten gold drown you."

Ned chose not to respond and agitate his opponent any further, simply taking the scroll back politely. He let the silence hang for a long time afterwards, before speaking again.

“Very good then. I’ll see to speaking with the architects about an estimate for the first payment immediately. Now that we’ve finalized the details of our new arrangement, I also believe all we need is to ensure its continued good faith. As such the crown would appreciate a public gesture to demonstrate that we have indeed turned the page on this… ugly saga in our history. Which is why I would invite your second son, Tyrion, to accompany the initial gold shipment and serve as the crown’s ward and my personal cup-”   

“Done.”

Ned paused mid-sentence, unable to keep the grimace of disgust from his face at the prompt, almost eager, way with which Tywin had just agreed to turn over his other son. He truly did not care at all what happened to the boy, which also meant his value as a potential hostage to Ned was effectively none. Still, the gesture needed to be made, as Ned would likely have to make similar demands of other lords with uncertain loyalties. And it was likely the only remaining concession Tywin would willingly agree to after Ned had already pushed him so far towards his limit.

Ned had initially considered having Tywin send his daughter Cersei to the capital instead, who would have been a far more effective hostage. But Jon Arryn had staunchly opposed the idea, convincing Ned it wasn’t worth it. It was possible… no likely, Tywin would balk rather than allow House Lannister to suffer the humiliation of being under Ned's thumb indefinitely, even at the risk of its possible destruction. And getting the necessary gold to help secure the rest of kingdoms was more important than keeping just the Westerlands in check.

Not that Ned would take his eye off the Westerlands anytime soon. Whatever notion of balancing their account which Ned had tried to feign, he didn’t doubt for a second that Tywin would begin plotting to avenge these slights a hundred times over as soon as he and his son were safely away. But that was a worry for another time. For now at least, the ceremony and celebrations would allow Ned to hold on to the pair long enough for the first gold shipments to arrive. 

“I’m sure you have a number of arrangements to see to my lord, so I shan’t hold you any longer.  Please, allow Lord Commander Gerold to escort you to a private chamber where you may pen the necessary instructions to your brother, Kevan. He and Ser Oswell will accompany the courier back to your camp, to ensure the task is carried out thoroughly. And to guard against any… mishaps, along the way.”

Tywin abruptly stood, apparently glad to finally take his leave. Yet at the exit, he stopped to turn back for a brief moment.

“Well played, Stark. I underestimated how strong a stomach you had for the game. Know that it won’t happen again.”

Perhaps not. But Ned doubted it would be the last time he managed to surprise Tywin Lannister either. The next one likely coming far sooner than the Lord of Casterly Rock expected. The thought brought a small smile to Ned’s lips as he watched the Warden of the West go, Ser Gerold shadowing his every step.

He called for Martyn immediately afterwards. “You may send for Lord Tyrell now,” he instructed calmly.

The day was only just beginning. And there was still work to be done before its end.

 

*****

 

Mace Tyrell was not nearly as impressive as he often tried to be. That had been Ned’s assessment of the man when he first met the Lord of Highgarden after lifting his siege of Storm’s End. Now, two months later, that opinion had not changed.

He certainly looked the part at first glance, with the same powerfully-built frame and strikingly handsome features highlighted by curly brown hair and cut beard. Yet Ned could not help but think back to Ser Gerold’s words about his character while watching the man in question nervously enter the room.

“Mace Tyrell has had an overinflated sense of self-importance for as long as I can remember. If a man of superior station treats him with the familiarity of an equal, he'll get even fuller of himself than he usually is. And you can get even more out of him.”

Ned couldn’t help but sigh internally at the thought that this would be his life now. But he steeled himself for it regardless. Because now is where it would begin.  

"Ah Mace, come in," Ned exclaimed enthusiastically, opening the door to greet him, grasping his hand warmly in the process. Ned hoped he was projecting an air of easy confidence to the older man. The role was not a comfortable fit for him.

Even Mace could tell to some extent, clearly caught off guard by the relaxed and familiar manner Ned was addressing him with. His surprise was even more evident after the rigorous handshake when Ned walked ahead to pull out a chair and urged Mace to sit.

As he tentatively took the offered seat in front of the desk, Ned swiftly returned to his own behind it, keeping his broad grin in place as turned to face Mace. He could already tell he would smile more during this conference then he had in his entire life, and his cheeks were already groaning in agony at the thought.

As disquieting as Ned’s constant smiling was however, it didn’t take Mace too long to recall his obvious confusion at why Ned would invite him to talk in the king’s private audience chamber of all places, as Ned now observed the Lord of Higharden begin to glance around in various directions.

The Warden of the South nearly fell over his seat when Arthur suddenly revealed himself, walking out from his unassuming corner behind Mace and strolling right beside Ned without a word. And then, for the first time, Mace noticed the bassinet on Ned’s opposite side. And when he leaned forward to peer inside, his eyes went wide and his mouth dropped.

Jon was currently sucking on a finger, gazing back at the Lord Paramount of the Reach with equal curiosity.

Mace’s head started to swivel several times between the babe, Ned, and Arthur in quick succession as he kept trying to piece the puzzle together.

And then, finally, they fell into place. And Mace fell back into the chair.  

Ned kept his exasperation with Mace taking so long to figure out the obvious in check, flashing his teeth instead to maintain an appearance of enthralled delight.

“As you’ve no doubt cleverly surmised my lord, we may now put aside the past few months of petty bickering regarding the succession at last. For I have returned with Crown Prince Aegon of House Targaryen, trueborn son of Prince Rhaegar and my sister Lyanna, and rightful heir to the Iron Throne. No doubt the whole of the realm will rejoice upon my announcement of his discovery later this evening, along with my assumption of the office of Lord Regent in his name, which the High Septon agreed to bless the previous night.”

“Trueborn, my lord?” Mace gaped aloud. It would appear the Lord of Highgarden hadn’t quite put all the pieces together just yet.

“Indeed, my lord. There is written documentation of the wedding ceremony between the prince and my sister which Ser Arthur here, along with Ser Oswell, bore witness to this fact and are prepared to attest as such to the rest of the court. But I’m sure you of course, would not have cause to doubt their word, Mace. Or my intentions in steering this period of transition.”

“I-uh, of course not, Lord Stark. E-Everyone knows the honor and integrity of the Kingsguard, especially Ser Arthur, is beyond reproach. And you, of course, would never abide any form of underhanded deception.”  

"I am humbled by your trust in me, Mace.  And trust is why I felt it necessary to share this news with the realms most prominent lords first. Especially you Mace. It is precisely because of your steadfast loyalty and adherence to duty that I feel I can entrust you with the burden of being the realm’s new Master of Coin, and sit on Crown Prince Aegon’s small council alongside me.”

Now Mace was very confused.

"I… me, my lord?"

Ned seized the moment, and poured the praise on like sauce over a finely roasted goose. “Of course, Mace. After all, were you not in command of the army that gave Robert his only defeat at the Battle of Ashford?” Though Randyll Tarly was the one who actually fought it.

“And there is not a soul in the realm who can doubt or dispute your steadfast loyalty to House Targaryen throughout the Rebellion” Even as you could not dip your banners fast enough upon my approach.

"I can think of no one more suited for the position." I can think of no one else I like better with as much wealth.

He wondered if he had laid it on too thickly at first. But, amazingly, Mace's chest actually seemed to swell up beneath his breast with each passing moment Ned continued to laud his supposed ‘accomplishments’.

This might actually be as easy as Ser Gerold and Varys' reports suggested.

“I am… flattered, by your acknowledgement, my lord. I have only ever striven to do my duty to the crown after all!”

Ned wondered how difficult it was for Mace to convince himself of that. Probably not very

“And I am humbled that you would elevate me to such an esteemed position, and would gladly accept under normal circumstances. Yet…”

Ned’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, sensing the hesitation in Mace’s voice.

“Will there not be… objections? To such a sudden, unilateral declaration without consulting the other lords? Lord Tywin perhaps, or more importantly Queen Rhaella…” he tittered nervously

Ned genuinely smiled for the first time since Mace walked in. He could not have asked for a more perfect rebuttal. “Lord Tywin has already pledged to give his full support behind the notion, actually. And Queen Rhaella has just sent word that she plans to return to the capital in order to meet her grandson.”

Though slightly embellished, his statement had the desired effect on Mace. “They have, my lord?” he exclaimed, completely flabbergasted. Ned had only arrived last evening, so he was likely stunned by how much the northern lord had already accomplished in so short a time. Which meant Mace’s internal scales now started to lean towards Ned as the side to bet on.

Ned added a few more stones to tip said scales further. “Even as we speak, the newly appointed Lord Hand Jon Arryn is informing our mutual father-in-law Lord Hoster, and the soon to be new Master of Ships, Lord Stannis. And I have a missive with an offer of peace to Dorne en route, which I believe will be met most favorably.”

That last line regarding Dorne was not wrong per say either... and Mace failed to pick up on the exaggeration. He simply continued to stare in amazement at how thoroughly Eddard’s takeover was. With all the Lord Paramounts (setting aside the Greyjoys for reasons so obvious even Mace understood why) and the High Septon accounted for, and holding the only legitimate symbol of authority in the realm by way of the remaining acknowledged members of the royal family, Eddard had effectively cut the legs out from under any potential opposition to rally behind. And placed himself in firm position to marginalize or crush anyone who might dare try.

Suddenly, Mace’s nervous gaze trailed back towards Arthur. More specifically to the hilt of Dawn resting at his side.

He cleared his throat with equal trepidation. “My compliments, lord Stark. It seems you have the situation well in hand after all.”

Ned wondered how sincere that statement truly was, but mentally shrugged it off. It mattered little now, and provided Ned with the opening to broach the real purpose behind their meeting.

He let out a long, exaggerated sigh. “You are not wrong that there are still many difficulties ahead of us however, Mace. The weight of becoming Regent will indeed be met with suspicion and criticism from all corners. Those who joined Robert and I in the Rebellion, will fairly wonder what the point of all their sacrifices were, even if King Aerys madness spoke for itself. And those who stayed loyal will view my ascension with suspicion and resentment, wondering if I might have somehow manipulated recent events to secure it. Ridiculous rumormongering of course.”

Mace nodded absently in agreement, though Ned didn’t doubt he likely wondered those same things since he arrived.

"It is the views of the loyalist that concerns me most at the present, for their distrust is only natural in the wake of our previous conflict. Which is why we must put our new reign on firmer ground, Mace. To put the unfortunate events of the past behind us, and demonstrate that our unity can overcome our previous divisions.  And why I wish to propose a betrothal between your daughter, Lady Margaery and..." Mace suddenly sucked in a deep breath, eyes turning fervently at the bassinet next to Ned now "... my son and heir, Robb."

Mace’s face fell so far down Ned thought he might grow another chin.

“Oh… oh. I see, my lord. I am of course, deeply honored you would consider such a union between our Houses. Yet… forgive me if I am speaking out of turn, but would not a betrothal for Prince Aegon be a more… effective symbol?” The hopeful pleading in the Lord of Highgarden’s eyes might well be crawling on hands and knees by now if they had any of their own.

Ned gave an overdramatic sad shake of his head. "Unfortunately, I can make no such promises on Prince Aegon's behalf, Mace. While I may see to the running of his realm, I do not run his household. That duty falls to his grandmother, Dowager Queen Rhaella, who is set to return to the capital in a weeks’ time with Prince Viserys... and her unborn child."

Luckily, even someone as oblivious as Mace Tyrell managed to catch what Ned was implying... after several moments of blinking anyway. "I... see. I must offer my congratulations to Her Grace when she arrives then. Do you... know if it will be a boy or a girl?"

"I am not at liberty to share that news just yet I'm afraid. At least not until Her Grace is here to announce it herself anyway." Which was a load of horse shit, since if that was the case Ned wouldn't have let slip her pregnancy in the first place.

But it did the trick, and with no means refuting the claim Mace seemed resigned as he gave a half-hearted, "I understand."

“Privately however,” Ned suddenly interjected, causing Mace’s head to whip back up in attention. “We are currently inclined to believe from her letter that it will be a girl.” That wasn't actually a lie at least. They were inclined to believe it. They just had had no proof it was actually the case.

“Ah… well that is a pity then,” Mace muttered under his breath, likely more to himself then to Ned. Shaking his head in dismay Mace began to speak… until Ned interrupted.

"I hope this won't prove to be so disappointing for you to not still see the benefits in joining our Houses, Mace,” Ned slid in smoothly, infusing seemingly genuine concern in every word. “After all, I was looking forward to your counsel as we govern the realm together through these difficult times. And I would not be averse to revisiting the matter at a later point."

“Pardon my lord?”

"It’s simply a betrothal Mace. Should circumstances change we can always reopen discussions before any actual wedding takes place. Depending on how my own conversation with Dowager Queen Rhaella goes in the coming week, we may speak even sooner on the matter.”

Mace managed to actually pick up the hint, and his interest was piqued again. “Truly, Lord Stark?”

“If you require further assurance then how about we do this instead, Mace? Let us reframe from making any formal announcement about the betrothal contract between our children for say, a year, after we sign. That way we may confirm the sex of the newest member of the royal family, and have sufficient time to determine their good health. If matters with the Queen do not pan out after all, then I will personally bring the matter of setting a new betrothal for her grandson to her attention. Should she receive the matter favorably, any previous obligations between us will disappear, as if they never existed. I would, after all, be most disappointed if this proved too much of a complication for you to take up your deserved position as Master of Coin, Mace. While depriving me of your wise counsel in governing the realm during this lengthy regency period."

He was tempted. That much was obvious from the conflicting emotions on his face. Yet still, the Lord of Highgarden continued to hesitate, prompting Ned to launch his last strike to nail Mace to his flag once and for all.

“I give you my word Mace,” Ned promised soberly. Mace’s eyes widened as his mind registered. As Jon Arryn had said earlier that morning ‘Queen Rhaella had the right of it, Ned. When you give your word, you damn well keep it. No one in the realm has ever had cause to doubt that. So use it.”

And it indeed, did the trick. Licking his teeth in hesitation for a brief moment Mace slowly, but eventually, nodded his head in acquiescence.

Ned let out an internal sigh of relief. He’d done it. He successfully dangled out the lure Mace had been desperately looking for. The hope that he might still see his blood sitting on the Iron Throne should Rhaella give birth to another son instead, or even (however unlikely) outright refuse to betroth her potential daughter to the crown prince. All without having to give up the Small Council seat he'd coveted for so long and cement an alliance with the House that would be the real power behind the Iron Throne for well into the next several decades. Best of all, this afforded Ned more options in dealing with those same potential issues as well, should they come to pass. All while still binding Mace and House Tyrell to Ned through legal contract, and ensuring their support of the new order for the foreseeable future. He would need to thank Jon Arryn for suggesting the new approach, and Ser Gerold again for his advice once this meeting was over.

Varys could wait though. Not that the Spider ever expected gratitude for his work.

With another broad smile painted on his mouth, Ned reached for a nearby bottle, pouring himself and Mace a drink and toasted to the successful conclusion of their new alliance. Ned now had the second largest and most fertile kingdom in the realm at his disposal, along with access to the necessary financing to stabilize the new regime without having to rely on House Lannister. Any hope of challenging his nephew’s claim had now effectively crumbled into dust, bordering on suicidal for even Tywin Lannister or Dorne to try so long as his new coalition held. And if they couldn’t do it, then all the lesser lords who might still be reluctant would have no choice but to choke it down. He had secured his rule. Now all that was left was to make it official.

Speaking of which… “I’m very pleased we were able to come to an agreement after all Mace. This will mark a new dawn for the Seven Kingdoms. Together, there is nothing we will not be able to accomplish. Such an occasion deserves a celebration, would you not agree?”

Mace nodded wholeheartedly, never one to miss out on a chance to gorge on food. “Well said, my lord! And one worthy enough to properly laud you and your nephew’s elevation! The whole realm should be able to bear witness to such a momentous event!”

“I could not agree more,” Ned lied through his teeth. He believed such decadence wasteful in the face of the harsh and unforgiving winters of the North. But it provided the opening he needed. “Unfortunately, you’ve no doubt seen the sad state of the capital upon your arrival. Many of the stores were burned out and we’re barely able to keep everyone fed within the city, much less-“

Mace could not have played his role more perfectly, waving his hand aside as he spoke his next lines. “Say no more, my lord. My host has more than enough supplies remaining from the siege of Storm’s End to share for such a grand occasion.”

Of course Ned was already well aware of all that thanks to Varys reports. Mace had been building up his supply base for over a year outside Storm’s End, and despite having shed the majority of his host, he took the bulk of it with him during his march back up to the capital. Likely in anticipation of using it for just such an occasion, given the current deprivation of the city.

Well, Ned had his own vision of how that particular script would play out. “You have my eternal gratitude for your generous contribution, Mace. A week of revelry will be of great comfort to the people of King’s Landing after their past troubles and losses.”

“A… week, my lord? And the whole city?” Mace coughed into his wine glass, pulling back now and looking completely baffled.

Ned blinked a few times, feigning surprise. “Why… of course, Mace. You yourself said we needed a grand celebration to match the occasion. Would not a week of festivity only be natural in that case?”  

“I… did?” He started to look a bit green around the collar, and fidgeted in his chair as though he could physically feel the entrapment closing. “Ah, my lord… While I do indeed agree a week long feast would merit this glorious event, even my baggage train would only be able to feed the entirety of the city's residents for a day or two at most-”

“Which is why we will need the lords of the Reach closest to the Crownlands to write their holdfasts and send the necessary wagons. I’m sure they will prove amicable should you request it personally, especially under the auspice of Master of Coin, Mace.”

Mace just blanched at the image. “Ah… my lord,” he began again “The lords of the Reach have suffered at a tremendous cost during the course of the war and-“

Ned held out a hand to cut him off again. “No need to worry, Mace. The crown will see that the lords of the Reach are fairly compensated for their contribution,” he reassured confidently. After all, Tywin would be footing the bill for this particular expense. A rather broader interpretation of what constituted relief for the citizens, but one Ned would not lose any sleep over.

Even if he hadn’t been able to count on that particular source of income, Ned would have shouldered the cost regardless. If there was one thing the people of King's Landing would want more then gold at the moment, it would be food. Most had to suffice on stale gruel and hard bread since the Sack. A real feast would warm their bodies... and their hearts to the notion of the king in whose honor said feast was being thrown for.

And the lavishness would establish credit with Mace and House Tyrell in the future, which would in turn make it even easier when the crown came asking for a loan from its new Master of Coin.

Mace licked his lips after another moment of anxiety, but once again slowly nodded. “If you say so, Lord Stark. I will see to the preparations immediately then.”

“I leave it in your capable hands, Mace.”

A few more drinks, a bit more self-congratulations with pats on one another’s backs and Mace finally scurried off to see to his new tasks.

When the chamber door finally closed behind him Ned found himself collapsing back into his chair immediately afterwards. “Thank the Gods,” he whispered, heaving out a long, shaky breath of relief.