She’d gone to the godswood to escape, just as she had so many times before. And, when she squinted just right, she could almost escape: there was the weirwood, set against the thick carpet of snow. She closed her eyes and breathed in the snow. It smelled the same everywhere.
Sansa opened her eyes again and let herself see the truth. The Red Keep’s heart tree was no weirwood, just an oak. The snow was more of a dusting than anything. It was nothing like Winterfell, and it never would be.
She knelt before the heart tree anyway, unable to keep her shoulders from trembling, as they had been all day. Her ladies’ maids kept telling her she needed to stay warm. As if the former Lady of Winterfell could ever feel a chill in the South.
It was strange how the war had brought everyone together, made Winterfell whole again—or as near to whole as it could be—and yet the peace that followed had torn them apart, scattering them around the Seven Kingdoms. Arya had gone to Storm’s End. Tyrion had returned to the Westerlands; Sam and Gilly the Reach; Theon the Iron Islands.
Of course, the man everyone was calling King Aegon VI Targaryen had come here, to the Red Keep. Several months later, after receiving dozens of marriage offers, Sansa had sent one very important raven to Jon, and he and all their advisors agreed to her idea. She’d come here to marry him.
At least, she thought he’d agreed. She’d come a few weeks early, hoping to speak with him in private, to see if he really wanted to go through with the wedding. But she’d been in Kings Landing for a week, and it seemed he was nowhere to be found, and the wedding was in just a fortnight, and—
She turned around, startled.
It was Jon.
“Jo—I mean, Your Grace.” Seeing him made her feel warm, but also jittery, alive with nerves. He wore fine, regal clothes, all black, with some dark red detailing on his doublet. Over his shoulders was the fur cloak she’d made for him, and she couldn’t help but smile to see the trace of Stark, of her, on him. Why hadn’t he come to see her yet?
She wanted to run into his arms, like she had when they’d reunited at Castle Black. But something between them was cold, broken, right now. Maybe she’d broken it, by proposing this match, even though Varys and Tyrion and Brienne and Jaime and everyone else between Winterfell and the Red Keep had said it was a good idea. The only idea that made any sense for the realm.
Sansa rose, began to curtsy, but Jon held out a hand. “There’s no need…” He trailed off, looking around, uncomfortable. “I didn’t think I’d find you here.”
Obviously he wasn’t pleased about finding her. All the color had left his face.
It confirmed what she’d believed. He didn’t want this.
She gathered up her skirts and rushed back toward the Red Keep. “I can leave, if Your Grace wants some privacy—”
“Sansa, stop.” He reached out, taking her arm as she tried to pass him. They stood like that for a long moment, him not able to meet her eyes, before he said, “Stay. Please.”
She turned back toward the heart tree, his grip loosening on her, but not letting go. She wished his touch didn’t affect her so much. She could feel the warmth of it, but also the hurt, all the way to her core. “I know now that it was a mistake to arrange something in writing, without us speaking first,” she said. “If you want to call off the wedding, I understand.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I arrived in Kings Landing a week ago,” she said, trying to keep the anger from her voice. “I never wanted to come back here—you know that. But I did. I agreed to this match because I know that our marriage will unite Westeros, and because I thought maybe I could face this place with…” She sighed, not wanting to say it, but unsure how to take it back. “With you by my side. A part of the North, to make this place feel like home.”
“I agreed because I thought that it was the best way for me to protect you. But I didn’t think things through enough. Being back here… you can’t possibly feel safe.”
She gave him a tight smile. Yes, of course that was the reason he’d agreed to the marriage. Out of obligation, duty, his need to protect her. How could she have been so foolish? A week ago, she’d arrived in Kings Landing, almost… happy. It made her feel sick now. “I don’t feel safe anywhere, you know that. What happened in Winterfell—it’s not much better than here, and it’s not home anymore without you and Arya. And I’ve said before, you can’t protect me.” She shut her eyes tight, not wanting to think about pathetic she was, how she’d let herself imagine something else. “I just needed to be wanted here. But you didn’t greet me, or come to see me once.” Sansa took a deep breath, steadying herself for her next words. “The marriage is a mistake.”
Jon stared at her, his hold on her arm softening.
“I understand,” she said. “It was a good idea on paper—you always say I come up with very convincing lists, however stupid you think lists are—but it’s clear you don’t want to go through with it. It’s all right, Jon.”
“Jon,” he repeated, his voice quiet. “Nobody has called me that for awhile.” He shook his head, letting go of her arm. She felt a sudden cold where his hand had been. “Is that what you think? That me avoiding you means I don’t want to go through with the marriage?”
She raised her brows, not understanding. What else was she supposed to think?
He walked over to the heart tree, resting his hand on the bark. A soft laugh moved through his shoulders. “I’ve been afraid, Sansa. I’ve told everyone I’m too ill to leave my chambers, and when I’ve had to leave, I’ve taken detours just to keep from passing your chambers. The day you arrived, I watched your carriage from a tower. I hated myself for not being there, for leaving you alone in this damned place, but—how am I supposed to face you knowing what happens a fortnight from now?”
Her frown fell away, and suddenly she was laughing, too. “You’ve faced wildlings, giants, Boltons, the Golden Company, dragonfire, an army of the dead—you’ve died—”
“You and your lists.”
“—and you’re afraid of a marriage?”
“Not a marriage,” he said. His hand made a fist on the tree, his back still toward her. “You.”
“I’ve been trying to prepare myself for marrying you ever since we agreed to the match. I’ve even tried to do what you’d do, making bloody lists about it.”
She didn’t understand why he was always mocking her lists. They were helpful. “Jon—”
“I can’t think of anything else—it’s been tormenting me. The wedding is in a fortnight, but I’m no more ready than I was months ago. How do we go from being brother and sister to husband and wife? The realm needs heirs, but you’ve been through so much already, and you’re my sister. How can I bring myself to…”
“I understand, Jon,” she said again, heart sinking. “You only agreed to marry me because you felt obligated to protect me. It makes sense. I’m your sister—you can never see me in that way.”
“No,” Jon said.
Sansa nodded, even though his back was still to her. So this was it. She’d come to Kings Landing for nothing—worse than nothing—and now she was to return back to Winterfell in disgrace and accept Harry Hardyng or some other lord’s proposal. “I understand.” It seemed like the only thing she knew how to say anymore.
“No,” he said again, slower. “It’s not true that I can’t see you in that way.” His shoulders rose as he took a deep breath. She watched him, hoping, terrified, every nerve on edge. “Ever since you came to Castle Black… Everything has been different.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, her voice sounding high-pitched.
“I mean that I’m no better than the Lannisters or Targaryens, and that when I look at you, I… Gods, Sansa, I haven’t been able to think of you as only my sister for a long time.”
The godswood was silent. At home, there would be chattering birds, bubbling ponds, rustling trees. But here, in this tiny patch of wildness in the middle of the city, all was quiet.
He finally turned toward her, though his eyes were on the ground. “That’s why I haven’t been able to face you. That’s why we must call off the wedding. Because I didn’t agree to it just to protect you, or to unite the realm. It was selfish, wrong, twisted—”
“I’ll never force you to wed,” he said quietly. “Go back home and rule with Bran, or go rule the Eyrie, or Riverrun. I’ll name you Warden of the East. You’ll never marry if you don’t want to, I swear it.”
She cleared her throat, trying to summon up her courage. “And if I want to marry you, as we planned?”
He almost looked at her, but held himself in check, looking back at the ground. “Why would you want to, after what I just said?”
“I don’t trust myself anymore. Not when it comes to love. When I find myself feeling that way, I... push those feelings down.” She folded her hands over each other, squeezing her palms together. “That’s what I did with my feelings for you.”
His head snapped up and their eyes met.
“I didn’t come here to be your sister, Jon.”
The words hung heavy in the air, and right away she wanted to take them back. She didn’t feel very brave, and now that she’d spoken the words into life, she felt naked. He took one step toward her, then two, then six, all the while searching her face, unbelieving, almost pained. As if what she was saying was impossible.
“I came here to be your wife. I know what that means, what will happen between us a fortnight from now,” she whispered, because now he was close enough to hear her whisper. “And I’m not afraid.”
She took his hands, and he looked down at them, as if making sure her touch was real. Before, whenever she’d touched him, he’d always looked surprised, but this was different—as if some invisible line they’d been pretending didn’t exist had suddenly been crossed. When he looked back up, he moved closer, dipping his head to rest his forehead against hers, so gently that she wasn’t sure he was touching her at all. He was so close that all she wanted to do was breathe him in, but so close that she could barely breathe at all.
“Do you swear it? You’re not just—saying this to make me go through with the marriage? So that I don’t feel guilty or ashamed?” A shadow crossed his face and he pulled back his head. “I can’t go through with it, anyway, no matter what you say. What would Father think?” His eyes flickered down toward her mouth. “Don’t lie to me to serve the realm, Sansa, I can’t bear it.”
Even though he was king now, being raised a bastard meant Jon felt entitled to nothing. That was one of the things she loved about him, but it hurt that it meant he didn’t think he was worthy of love. He didn’t believe that someone could feel like this toward him.
There was one way to convince him. She closed the inches between them, pressing her lips against his. He didn’t move, didn’t kiss her back. Maybe he was right—he couldn’t do this; there was no way for him to get beyond his guilt, to allow himself to give in to what he wanted. Or maybe he didn’t even want her. Maybe he had confused protective, familial love for something else. Sansa pulled away, embarrassed, and opened her eyes to find his closed, his brow furrowed. His grip was tight on her hands.
“I’m sorry, Jon. You don’t want this—”
“I do,” he breathed back. “Too much.”
She let go of his hands, slowly sliding her hands up to his neck, into his hair. She felt his breathing quicken, and then his arms were encircling her waist, and he was pulling her tight to him, kissing her. She gasped against his mouth, digging her fingers into his curls as he kissed her again and again, soft and then harder. His fingers dug into her back, his tongue skimming against her lip, and she pressed herself closer and closer. It was nothing like Joffrey or Harry Hardyng. It was nothing like kissing as she’d ever known it. I want this, she thought to herself, giddy, hoping somehow he could hear her. I want this for now and tomorrow and all the days and nights and seasons to come.
When he pulled away, she felt weak. She opened her eyes, and it was too bright. He was still holding her, his eyes heavy-lidded and his breathing heavy.
“Do that again,” she said.
A slow smile found its way to his face. “I’ve been told a king should only take commands from his queen.”
Her eyes widened. Did that mean…?
“You’ll have to wait a fortnight until I follow your orders, my queen.”
He would marry her, after all. Relief filled her, and she laughed, at what he’d said, and out of the dizziness of the kiss, but mostly out of joy. She threw her arms around him, nuzzling into his shoulder. “A whole fortnight? That’s enough time to come up with some commands.”
“Lots of commands,” he murmured against her ear, sending a chill through her. “A long, imaginative, detailed list of commands.”
“I thought you hated my lists.”