Sansa swept aside the beaded curtain and tiptoed over to join the other pupils. Lord Baelish had arranged a circle of chairs in the central room of his brothel, the Pink Pearl. The room smelled of incense, and what Sansa now knew was sex. Sex that men and woman bought and paid for.
Soon she’d be bought and paid for too. The children in this room been captured, some highborn, some from the streets, selected for their youth. The blond-haired girl across from Sansa was weeping openly, drying her eyes with her white shift.
The girls had whispered among themselves on thin straw mattresses last night, trying to make sense of how their lives had taken a terrible turn. Sansa remembered how happy she’d been when the raven with a Lannister seal arrived from the capital. She’d been summoned by the Queen herself, to foster at King’s Landing. Other highborn girls had received similar messages, and set off of journeys of their own.
Poorer families had offered up their children, especially their daughters, without fanfare. Daughters cost money to marry off. Some households had been persuaded to give up handsome boys. The families had been provided with generous sums of gold to make up for their earnings.
Families like Sansa’s had misgivings, of course. Allowing their highborn daughters to travel on the Kingsroad was a serious risk, but a queen’s command was not easily turned aside. Sansa’s parents had fussed over her and sent her off with their best guards – Jory Cassell among them – as well as Septa Mordane.
Sansa’s chest had swelled with excitement to be on such an adventure, until her coach had been attacked and she’d been shoved out the door and into the mud. Septa Mordane’s high scream had cut off abruptly in the night. Jory had lunged for Sansa, his face contorted with rage, before a stranger threw a burlap sack over Sansa’s head, and dragged her here, to Lord Baelish’s establishment.
Lord Baelish entered the room, resplendent in a green jacquard jacket, and made his way to the center of the circle. He stood on the raised dais and opened his arms in a beneficent gesture. He turned slowly, welcoming each child in turn. Lord Baelish had ordered the boys and girls alike dressed in white, for their first formal “introduction” to the brothel.
He silenced the chorus of questions with a quick motion of his hand.
“Our lovely queen didn’t tell the whole truth to your parents. But you are here for a special reason. You’ve been selected for your looks, and for some of you-" Lord Baelish glanced at Sansa, and smirked "–your impeccable manners. All of those attributes will serve you well as you learn how to serve our clients here at the Pink Pearl.”
According to gossip Sansa had heard, it was better to have highborn manners. Manners and courtesy couldn't be taught quickly, and fetched a high price. Sansa’s hair was a fiery red, her skin was smooth and clear as ivory, and she’d been raised as a lady. She knew how to sit up straight and and sing and play the harp. Children from common households, who didn’t know the proper forms of address, who couldn’t play instruments or eat delicately – they’d have the worst clients. Clients who didn’t care about style and nuance, as long as they could fuck how they liked.
“Our families,” the blond-haired girl burst out, “they’ll come for us, they’ll hunt you-“
Lord Baelish walked over and cupped the girl’s cheek. “I doubt it very much, little one. Your families have been told the wasting fever took you on the Kingsroad. A tragic outbreak, like last year's. So many young lives lost. We had to burn your bodies-“
A collective gasp went up, but Lord Baelish continued to talk, serene as if he was discussing the weather, rather the cover up of their “deaths”.
“-so you are well and truly gone, I’m afraid. But don’t worry, you’ll begin a new life here, and the Queen will see to it that you’re treated well.”
He's lying, she thought, Cersei didn't send those letters, he did. The queen didn't ask for any of us. No one else knows we're here.
But it was a well-chosen tale. She could still see her mother's ashen face when she'd received word that the wasting fever had struck the Vale. Sansa had been embroidering a dress for their visit to Aunt Lysa, but news of the deadly illness had brought a halt to their planning. Sansa's mother had comforted her, but Sansa had also found her mother praying in Winterfell's small Sept, bidding a tearful goodbye to Lysa and Robyn Arryn. The Vale had never recovered, and her aunt and cousin had died.
"Filthy liar," the boy next to Sansa muttered, as he glared straight ahead. His dark curls spilled over his forehead. His long lashes and full lips would be the envy of any girl. He sat straight-backed in his chair.
"Trust Lord Baelish to pull a trick like this, as tricky as he is with coin. Stole the Queen's seal and sent his own ravens-“ He slumped in his seat, scowling.
“Don’t,” Sansa hissed.
“Don’t be a fool, don't slouch, don’t complain. Haven’t you heard? The well-mannered ones, those who know their courtesies, they’ll be treated better. Sit up straight, try not to get hurt!”
The boy gave her a sullen look. His eyes are storm grey, Sansa thought, like the North, and the skies above Winterfell.
There was a hint of a smile on his lips, though. “I’m...well-mannered?”
Sansa flushed. She’d thought herself dead inside, after the nightmare of her capture. But the boy’s smirk made her temper flare.
“Yes, you were raised that way. You know Lord Baelish is the master of coin. Your posture was proper, until a moment ago. You know the rules, and that means someone taught them to you. You’re the highborn son of a lord.”
The boy’s mouth worked. “I’m not, but you’re right, I’ve been taught well enough. Doesn’t mean I have to give in. Hang the rules.”
“They’ll hang you, if you don’t follow them. Stay alive.”
“You’re fierce, for a dainty lady. I’m Jon.”
“I’m...I’m Sansa.” She had to push the name past her lips, because it brought a torrent of memories with it. Her solemn father’s smile and her wild little brother’s bright laugh. Father. Mother. Arya. Bran and Rickon and Robb. They’re gone, I’ll never see them again.
“Look now.” Jon’s gray eyes softened. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pushed. Sansa’s a pretty name. It suits you. Don’t cry, he'll see, and...”
Jon glanced away. “Maybe I want you to stay safe here too, all right?”
A tiny flicker of warmth bloomed in Sansa’s chest. Jon had gotten under her skin, but she’d gotten under his, and she felt alive, like a person, for the first time since she’d walked through the doors of the Pink Pearl.
Sansa reached for Jon’s hand. “Can we keep each other safe? Try, at least? We could write to the Queen, see if she knows-” Lord Baelish was speaking to the blond-hared girl across the room, but the hairs stood up on the back of Sansa’s neck. She had the eerie feeling he’d had heard them.
Jon’s quick squeeze of her hand was worth the risk. “We can try, Sansa, but the fever...would your parents believe it?" His grey eyes searched hers.
Sansa thought again of her mother, of how she'd lost hope for Lysa and Robyn. How she'd lit candles in the darkness, rather than question the ill news the raven bore. She fought back tears. "They might."
Jon nodded. "I've only one person in the world left, and I think he'd believe it too."
He's being smart about this, and I need to do the same, Sansa thought. She dashed away her tears.
Jon squeezed her hand again. "I’ll watch out for you, Sansa.”
She mustered up a smile. "I'll watch out for you too, Jon.”
Lord Baelish turned just as Jon released Sansa’s hand. They both schooled their features into a mask. The proprietor’s eyes glided over them, but Sansa was still uneasy. He clapped his hands, once, and the room fell silent. We’re under his spell already, Sansa thought.
“Your training begins this afternoon. Boys, file out with Satin.” He pointed to a slender, dark haired man standing in the corner. “Girls, with Ros.” A lush woman stood by the door, her thick red hair tumbling down the back of her sheer green gown. She smiled at the girls.
Lord Baelish nodded to Satin and Ros in turn. “They are your instructors, and will initiate you in the palace arts. Your training will last approximately two months, until we decide you are ready to serve the needs of our customers and become courtesans. Pleasure is an art form like any other, and Satin and Ros are at the height of their craft.”
How he does like to hear himself talk, Sansa thought bitterly. What a web of lies he's woven for us.
Lord Baelish looked every child in the eye one last time. “Pay attention, learn well, and you will be rewarded. Now go.”
Sansa took one last glance at Jon, at the mutinous set of his jaw, before she filed out of the room with the rest of the girls who trailed after Ros.