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The Sun In Splendor

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He sits in the cells of the Keep, watching the bare, flickering light waver on the stone floor, and he waits.

He can’t be certain, not absolutely, how long he’s been down here. He’d been caught in fever and hellfire for so long that he can’t even be sure that he’d been down here for more than a day before his mind had begun to return to him. His right leg—what’s left of it, at least—is still stiff, gnawing with pain, but his mind is no longer splitting; the severed end is no longer hot to touch. The fever could have killed him, the maester had said. It should have killed him, and if not that, the blood loss from the amputation. As it is, it’s still a question whether it will fester, down here in the dark. Waiting for the Emperor’s judgment.

There’s something that happens to a mind when it goes for long periods with no light, no thought, nothing to do but turn over its own mistakes. He’s locked into a circle of logical fallacies. If only we had never come South, is one, but there is no reason to suppose that this would not have happened had they remained in the North. If only I had not listened to Krennic, but if not Krennic it would have been another, more unknown figure, someone they would have been less willing to trust, and yet coming to this all the same.

If only I had kept it from Jyn.

Galen sees the clues in retrospect, laid out like a constellation. Orson’s insistence that they all come south. Not just Galen himself, called to court for six months, but Lyra, too, peeling her away from her duties as Warden of the North to swear her fealty, once again, to the Emperor. And Jyn, as well, only just fourteen and much too young to be making the trip down to the Red Keep.

He’d always had more power over Lyra than he’d liked to admit to himself. It’s why her sworn allies had come to him, to push their strategies. Lady Stark listens to you, my lord, and that’s why he’d always made a point of never becoming involved in the politics of the North, not wanting to make his wife seem weaker than she was, not wanting to let Northerners believe that he was the true power on the seat. But this time, oh—he’d known he could win, and he’d pushed hard for it. Tired of the endless snows of the North, perhaps. Tired of feeling useless. “You’ll see,” he’d said to Lyra, tracing his fingers up and down her arm beneath the furs of their bed, “you’ll see, sweet, it’ll go quickly, quicker than you know, and then we’ll be home again,” and she’d been swayed, his strong, iron-boned Lyra, the frost and ice of the Wall woven deep into her blood. Lyra had been swayed.  

Taking Jyn had been the hard part. “She’s too young,” Lyra had said, in her heavy robes on the dais. “Too young for a long journey.”

Orson had been standing, too, his breath puffing bright in front of his mouth, heavy southron silks not doing enough to cut the cold; his flushed cheeks and overbright eyes spoke to drink, to deceive the body into warmth, and his gloves had been on. Mark of a deceiver, his mother’d told him. Never trust a man who wears gloves indoors. “She’s four-and-ten, my lady Stark, not so young as your Greyjoy ward.”

“She’s too young,” Lyra had said again, and that would have been the end of it, if Galen had not pushed again, more fool he, more fool you, Galen, Galen, every star that has fallen is because of you. “Jyn stays here,” she’d said, but Orson had pressed, and Galen had seen no harm in it. Not then, at least, not back then in the winding snows of summer. He’d need Jyn, he’d thought. She had a head for mathematical figures that only he could match, and—his chest still bursts with pride at this, the same way it has for a decade, now—in a few years she’ll outstrip him. He knows it how he knows his own breath. Jyn, he’d reasoned, would do well to come to the capital with them, get the advantage of a few months of study under a maester whose education wasn’t twenty years out of date.

“I don’t like it,” Lyra had said. They’d retreated to the godswood—the one place, they both knew, Orson would not follow; the carved face in the weirwood unsettled him, southron as he was—and Lyra’s cloak had been flecked with snow. “There’s always a Stark in Winterfell, Galen. If both Jyn and I leave—”

“It’s only for six months.” He’d reached out, touched her cheek. Her hair, greystreaked, tumbled over her shoulder in a braid. “Saw and Steela will take good care of the North. We can’t exactly say no to the Emperor. And it will do her good to see the world with both of her parents still alive to protect her.”

She’d bitten her lip. If he focuses, back against the heavy stone wall, he can almost remember how it’d bleached beneath her teeth.

“Lyra.” Galen took hold of her shoulders, kissed her brow. “Trust me.”

He’d won. He could feel it in how she sighed, and nodded once against his jaw. “You,” she’d said. “Always you. But not Krennic.”

That had stung. They did not speak of it, not until far too late.

My fault. He knocks his head back against the wall, and catches his scalp against a hard knot of stone. My fault. All mine.

The North had not liked it. ”There is always a Stark in Winterfell,” Saw had said, when Lyra had announced it to her council. “One of you must stay.” But an Imperial summons was not to be gainsaid. They’d packed, and left within a sennight, the three of them on horseback, Orson in his covered cart to keep the snow from freezing on his expensive cloak, and Jyn’s direwolf, a thin, lanky thing, loping alongside.

The wolf had been gone within the week, chased off by Krennic’s guards. Saw would have called it an omen.

The door at the top of the stairs opens. Galen pushes his hands against the floor, and sits up, makes his eyes open. His hair is filthy, his nails cracked; he can’t get himself to the bucket to piss or shit, and it means that it stinks down here, himself, the cell, all of it. He’s been careful to keep it all off the bandage on his leg, unsure what they mean him for—execution, interrogation—but he no longer has the strength or the will to be shamed by it.

It’s Orson. Krennic, Galen thinks. Krennic, who’d attended the Citadel alongside him, left before his chains were forged. Krennic, now in rich silks and furs, all in silver thread.

“Galen,” he says, and lifts a gloved hand to his mouth. He’s carrying a scented handkerchief. “You look like hell.”

Galen does not speak. He braces his hands to the floor.

“Did they take your tongue along with your leg?” His voice muffles through the handkerchief, comes out twangy. Krennic stands, and his eyes rove over the dim cell, the lantern held by his attending guard splashing too-bright light across the stone. Galen’s head aches. He works moisture up into his mouth, and swallows it back down. “I apologize for the quality of your habitations of late. The Emperor had to be sure, you see, that your loyalty was guaranteed.”

“You should have let me die,” says Galen, and fixes his eyes on his knees again. One there. One very much not. He keeps forgetting. He can feel the leg, whole, beyond the stump. A trick of the mind. He still can feel it ache.

“Another man might be insulted,” says Krennic. Finally, he drops the handkerchief from his mouth. His face wrinkles at the stench, his nostrils flaring. His pale, strange eyes flicker over Galen like a greedy animal. He looks at you like you’re made of gold, Lyra had whispered into Galen’s ear. I mislike it. He thinks he owns you, my love. “After the struggles I’ve had on your behalf, Galen. The Emperor was certain that to ensure the safety of the Keep, both you and your wife must die.”

There is a lance in his chest, and he can’t feel that either. Not with his fingers. The hole in him is the same. Galen turns his face away.

“I had to do a great deal to keep you alive, you know. Convince a great many people. The Hand, for example. Tarkin was convinced you were a waste of the food we’ve been giving you, but I reminded him of your—particular skills.” Krennic clears his throat. “Gods, how can you stand it down here?”

“I have no other choice,” Galen says. Then, looking up at Krennic: “You should have let me die.”

“And let the Empire lose its greatest mind? No, Galen.” Krennic braces his thumb to his lips. “The Empire needs you. The Emperor needs you. I need you. If we are to finish this game, we have need of your mind and all its twists and turns.”

“I will not work for you, Krennic.”

He’s angered him. He can see it in the sharp tilt to Krennic’s mouth, the curl of the gloved hand against his side. Krennic jerks his head, and the Imperial guardsman shifts the lantern from one hand to the other, drawing keys from his belt. The cell door creaks as it swings free. Galen does not breathe as Krennic enters; he watches as the cloak drags through puddles of blood and pus and piss, and he thinks, there. Stain.

“Galen.” Krennic crouches beside him. He does not look at the stump. “Think of what you’re saying. You will die.”

“Let me die.” He does not have the heart left to be shamed when the tears come. Galen breathes through his nose, in and out, ragged. He closes his eyes. “You have taken all else from me. My wife, my child. Let me die. I will not do your work.”

“I am sorry that Lyra had to die, but there was nothing I could do.”

You engineered it, Galen thinks. He swallows bile. Lyra is dead because of you. You did not strike her down, but your hand may as well have been on the blade. He says nothing. There is nothing left to say.

“Oh, Galen.” Gloved fingers find his thin shoulder. Then his hair. When Krennic knots his hand close against Galen’s scalp, yanking him around, he bites his tongue to keep from crying out. The Imperial guard stays at the door, hand closed tight around the hilt of his sword. “The work needs you. You have no choice.”

“I would rather die,” Galen says.

Krennic looks at him. He lets his hand fall out of Galen’s filthy hair, braces his fingers to his knees. He searches Galen’s face, and Galen looks back at him. There’s a fire rising in his chest, spreading hot and fast down up his throat, through his legs, imagined or no, into his hands. He could never manage to kill Krennic before the guard takes his head, he thinks. He wants to dig his nails into the flesh of Krennic’s throat, and rip. He wants to tear him apart.

“You don’t have much choice in the matter, old friend,” says Krennic. “Get him up.”

It’s the guardsman who enters, not servants, not anyone else. Of course Krennic wouldn’t do it himself. The man’s face is covered by the crimson shroud of the Imperial guard, but Galen can feel it when he huffs with disgust at the sight of Galen’s clothes, the thought of putting his hands on the filth and crust of him. Galen doesn’t have the strength to fight back. He feels limp as a sickly child when the guard lifts him, arm locked tight around thin ribs.

“And if you’re thinking of doing something dramatic,” says Krennic, when Galen’s foot catches on the edge of the cell door, “know this: there’s still one thing more you can lose.”

Galen opens his eyes just in time to see Lyra’s kyber crystal—Jyn’s, he thinks; Lyra had given it to Jyn—spill from Krennic’s fingers. The necklace swings, back and forth, a pendulum. His body is cold. His lungs lock. He cannot breathe.

“Where is she?” says Galen.

“A ward of the Empire,” says Krennic. “You’ll see her again soon.”

If you agree to serve.

Galen lets his head fall.

“And think,” says Krennic. “If you behave yourself, they’ll even take your wife’s head off the wall. Give it a decent burial. Once you’re well enough to walk, of course.”

Chapter Text

The Red Keep stinks of shit and incense.

Jyn doesn’t cover her nose. Showing any kind of displeasure will only get attention, from Ser Deez at the very least. The Imperial Guard trades off watching her in shifts—not nearly so strictly, not the way it had been at the beginning, when members of the Red Guard would be standing outside the privy as she pissed, or at the end of her bed as she’d slept—but one guards her door at night, and another will trail her about the Keep should she leave her room. If she shows displeasure, or discontent, Ser Deez will notice; if Ser Deez notices, then it will be reported directly to the Hand, and there will be recriminations. She’s done well, of late, kept herself out of Tarkin’s way and the Emperor’s; she does not wish to risk it. She folds her hands close together in her lap, and smooths the fabric of her sky-blue gown, and breathes in steadily through her nose.

The weather’s taken a turn for the sour of late—ocean storms, blowing in from the east—and the steady rains over the last fortnight have overflowed the city sewer system. Even the Emperor’s rooms, she hears, smell of effluent and mold. It’ll die down in a sennight, perhaps two if King’s Landing’s cursed with another storm, but until then, the city streets are ankle deep in sewage. The one blessing is that the Emperor has shut himself away in the highest tower in the Keep, to avoid the stench of the capital. Nobody’s seen him in eight full days, and the whole of the Keep is the better for it.

The rest of the court, however, cannot hide in a tower. Men wander with scented handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths, their cuffs soaked in perfumes and oils to press to their faces when the smell gets too strong. Women wedge sticks of scent into their elaborate hairstyles, douse the collars of their gowns and weave scented ribbons into their braids. Jyn doesn’t bother—she’s smelled worse—but the combination of a thousand kinds of perfumes, sandalwood and ambergris, expensive, foreign things imported from Essos and the Reach, even the rich scent of pine—all of it combining does nothing more than give her a splitting headache.

If Jyn had her way, she’d still be in her rooms. If Jyn had her way, she’d always be in her rooms, but today of all days she’d take refuge. For the most part, the court is content to forget that she’s in the Keep at all—unless, of course, Saw has done something—but this day, of all days, it is impossible to hide. An envoy of Dornishmen is coming to the capital, to swear allegiance once again to the Emperor on his fifteenth Ascension Day, and she must be in attendance. The Hand himself has requested it.

Probably to remind people what happened the last time someone refused to swear allegiance.

Across the hall, one of the Tarkins lets out a laugh, a braying donkey’s call. Jyn keeps her head tipped down, and peers through her lashes at the room. There’s not many here today, at least. There are always Tarkins—they’ve no reason to stray from the Imperial seat, not with Wilhuff Tarkin as Hand of the Emperor and Lord Paramount of the Westerlands—but there aren’t so many present as there could be. Probably whoring, she thinks. Perhaps hunting, just to get out of the city even in the face of sudden storms. Some of the younger Tarkin boys like to ride hard and fast out of King’s Landing with some of the Emperor’s sons, to scour the surrounding woodlands for boar. None of them have returned gored as yet. She holds out hope. The Hutts are here, as usual, but no Rotta. Not yet. The one blessing this day might hold. Ismarens are lurking in the corners, as they always are, riding on Roganda’s skirts. Then there are the Kyrells, and the Naberrie, from the Emperor’s native Reach. A handful of Organas.

Maybe their party was attacked by sellswords on the road. Maybe they won’t ever arrive. Maybe they’ll let me return to my rooms to be in peace, before Rotta realizes I’m here. Maybe—

“Lady Stark.”

She does not breathe, for a moment. None could tell, not unless they were deliberately watching her chest rise and fall, but Jyn stops breathing, and keeps her hand curled close against the fabric of her skirt. Stupid. Stupid to think he’d miss this. He would never miss a court event like this one. It’s only after Krennic lets out a sharp, displeased breath, and says, “Lady Erso,” that she stands, and dips down into a curtsy. She does not lift her head.

“Good morrow, ser.”

Krennic seems to have forgotten what he came for. His gloves make a strange, slick sound as they pass against each other, the leather buffed and oiled to make it gleam in the dim candlelight of an evening party. In the light of day, he looks as though he’s dipped his hands into gut blood. The first time she’d seen Orson Krennic, she thinks, she’d been a girl of barely four-and-ten, and he’d been her father’s old friend from his maester days, before he’d met her mother, before they’d eloped in the dead of night to Winterfell and had her five years later. She remembers him, too, standing beside the Iron Throne as the sword had bit deep into Lyra’s neck. His eyes had been burning.

Stand tall and cold and strong as Mother did at the end. I am a Stark. I am a wolf. But for now I have no teeth. So I will bow and scrape and cower, until they forget who they keep chained, and then I will take my vengeance.

She keeps her mouth closed.

Krennic finally comes back to himself. Maybe he’s remembering, too, she thinks. Or maybe he’s just looking her over, the way he’s always done, reassuring himself that she remains in Imperial custody. He says, “You’ve not grown much, have you?”

She has grown. The pinch in her shoes and in the waist of her gowns, the let-out seams and then straining sleeves, that all speaks to how she’s grown. But that, she thinks, is another tactic. She won’t play his game. “I take after my father’s mother, ser,” says Jyn. There are seventeen beads on the toe of her right slipper. “None of us Erso women grow much beyond this.”

Her mother had been tall. Tall and straight and dark. Shorter than her father, but still taller than most women she’s ever seen, all but the Lady Roganda. She crushes the thought.

“How strangely quaint,” says Krennic. He’s lost interest in her. He’d not even known her name until she’d been in court a year, Jyn thinks, and that’s only because he’d had to learn, after the Emperor had dissolved the Stark line. Nobody had dared called her Jyn Stark after House Stark had been stricken from the Book of Great Houses. They’d all had to be careful. “Have you had word from your father, my lady Erso? One would think he would make time from his studies to return to the Keep, for his daughter’s nameday if nothing else.”

Her nameday had come and gone eight weeks ago. She does not mention it. “You would have spoken with him more recently than I, ser,” says Jyn. “There have been no ravens from the Eyrie, not for several months. The Imperial Maester has been busy with his projects.” Seventeen beads on her right slipper, and sixteen on the left. They’re too small, and pinch at the backs of her ankles. “I am told he wished me well.”

“There’s that, then,” says Krennic. When she lifts her eyes to his hands, he’s already tucked them behind his back. A reflexive move. She thinks he might be about to leave when he says, in an unctuous voice: “Will we have the pleasure of you singing at the banquet tonight, Lady Erso?”

Jyn knows she ought not look at him. It’s safer not to look at anybody; it keeps people from remembering her face, keeps her out of the game they all play. Casting pieces back and forth on a massive chessboard, trying to claw their way onto the Iron Throne. All of them—the young Tarkins, indolent and lazy and playing at lords and castles with their gold lions on their breasts; the Kyrells, only slinking out of the Twins to serve the Hand’s every whim; Roganda’s fleet of young women, with their sweet hard smiles—they all play this game. Jyn does not. She will not. The game is for others. She keeps her head down, and her eyes on the ground, and her smiles small and tight and toothless, and she will survive that way. She must. She must.

Her shoulders tingle.

And so she lies. She lies when they ask for her name. I am Jyn, of House Erso, daughter of the Imperial Maester. She lies when they ask for her thoughts. My mother was a liar and a traitor, and the Gerreras as well. I am loyal to the Emperor. Long live his imperial highness. She lies, and so she lifts her head and looks at Krennic and she says, “If the Emperor so desires, ser, it would be my pleasure.”

“Good,” says Krennic. His strange, round blue eyes dart over her head. He’s seen someone of far more interest than her, she can tell by the squeezing pleasure around his mouth. He says, “I take my leave of you, Lady Erso.”

“Ser,” says Jyn, and dips down into another curtsy. He does not bow back to her. Instead, he slips between two of the Kyrells. He has impeccable timing, she thinks. Through a flickering gap in the crowd, she can watch as Roganda Ismaren trails into the room, head held high, her throat gleaming with pearls from the waters surrounding Riverrun. Krennic is perfectly placed beside the door, the first to greet the Emperor’s mistress. The Hand is nowhere to be seen. Better things to do, I’m sure.

She waits until she’s certain Roganda hasn’t noticed her—if she does, she’ll have to sing sooner; Roganda takes a certain pleasure in making Jyn’s voice warble in front of the Emperor—and then settles back into the chair that Ser Deez had collected for her. Deez, she thinks, is from Pentos; he has an accent when he speaks, but that’s rarely. She’s not heard him say a word in three days, aside from his simple dip of the head and a quiet my lady when she leaves her room in the morning. How he came to serve as an Imperial Guard, she does not care to know, but the why of it, at least, makes sense to her. The Emperor wants skilled swordsmen, without loyalties that can be bought and sold in bloodlines and heritages. Sellswords from the Free Cities, chosen by tournaments, fit his requirements exactly.

The sword on his hip is too long for her, she thinks. She wants a blade again. She wants a sword to hold in her hand, a short sword like her mother had taught her to use. Not the long, double-handed Ice that Lyra herself had wielded. The blade of House Stark, my love. She’d let Jyn hold it just once, the massive sword longer than Jyn was tall, and it had been so heavy her arms had ached for hours after. You’ll grow into it, sweetling, I promise, but Ice is locked away somewhere in the Imperial treasure chambers, along with her mother’s sigil of office, her signet ring and her dragonglass dagger. Everything else belonging to Lyra Stark had been burned after the execution, aside from the crystal hanging around Jyn’s neck.

Jyn closes her eyes, and boxes all that away again. Seeing Krennic disturbs her. She cannot hide so well as she does when he forgets she exists, not when he stands in front of her and asks after her father as if it had not been his words that put the blade to Lyra’s neck.

And your father who let him say it.

My father is the Imperial Maester, and he is working for the benefit of the Empire at his manse in the Eyrie. She presses it hard into her mind, wills it to her tongue. I miss him and hope he shall return to the Emperor’s side soon.

And your mother?

My mother was a liar and a traitor, and her name is dust. She deserved to die a traitor’s death.

Ser Deez shifts his weight beside her. A warning. Not intentioned, she doesn’t think. He’d not do anything for her benefit, not Deez, not any of the Red Guard. Still enough to snap her back into her own mind, make her remember where she is, and who might see. She raises her head, follows the crowd with her eyes. Roganda has taken her place before the smaller throne upon the dais, the queen’s seat for all she is nothing but the daughter of a near extinct house in the Fingers, and the servants have flooded out of the corners to draw the curtains over the windows. The Emperor’s eyes are sensitive, according to whispers around the court. Jyn’s not sure of that. She’s come face to face with those eyes too many times to keep from wondering if it’s just not another show, another mummer’s stage. She watches as the candles are lit, and keeps her back to the wall. Much can happen in the dark.

When she’d been a child, first introduced to the Emperor, she’d thought he was a very, very old man. He isn’t—at least, he’s not yet so old as some on his privy council—but still: the flickering light of the braziers and candles leave deep hollows in his wrinkled face. A wasting disease in his youth, some said, that left his flesh so pale and misshapen. The portraits of his time as head of House Palpatine show a man with a receding widow’s peak, clear blue eyes and some bare wrinkles that spoke to middle age. Now his eyes are yellow—leftover from a curse, during the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Seven Kingdoms—and his face is folded and refolded, the way one might beat bread into submission. His lips are so thin as to give the impression he has none; they peel back from his teeth. One long-fingered hand clutches at the head of a cane, embossed with roses. The Black Knight stands behind him, and oh, Jyn forgets, every time, how massive he is. Not broad and tall like Dex, the cook who will sometimes smuggle her morsels, the only one to show her any sort of kindness in this place—it’s the color of his armor that makes him large, the always-lowered guard to his helmet, the rasping breaths he takes. The Emperor’s Black Knight trails him like a shadow as Palpatine makes his way onto the dais himself, and Roganda rises to ensure he’s seated before bowing in front of him to kiss the heavy golden ring on his right hand. It’s only after he’s run his hand across the bare skin of her throat that she rises, and takes the queen’s seat. The Knight settles behind the throne, hands behind his back, watching in silence.

As one, the court sinks into bows and curtsies. Jyn stays in the back, and lets her gaze fall back to the floor.

.

.

.

By noon, it becomes very clear that the Dornish envoy is late. Most likely, it’s because of the storms still curling and raging far out to sea. Either way, it means the Emperor is so displeased that he slaps Roganda across the face for suggesting that he retire for a while. The whole of the Great Hall echoes with the crack of hand on cheek before Roganda, pragmatic as always, gathers her skirts in both hands and tells him, in a chilly voice, that she’ll return to him when his temper has cooled. The ensuing shouting match sends everyone who can reasonably escape fleeing the Hall with their tails between their legs, and Jyn is one of the first to slip away in the dark.

She makes for the godswood. The South is devoted to the new gods, and it means in summer the trees are deeply nestled into overgrown grass, untended and unkempt. It also means no one will venture here after her. Jyn has to lift her skirts above her ankles to get through the high weeds, following the mostly hidden trail to the grand old oak these southron pagans chose for their heart tree. Her father follows the new gods, her mother kept the old, and seeing the carved face in the heart tree, its mouth twisted and its eyes searching, brings an ease she can’t find in the rest of the Keep. It feels almost like she’s been brought back to Winterfell. If the tree were only weirwood white, she might even believe it.

Jyn picks scraggling bits of dead smokeberry vine off her shoes, and settles in the center of the circle of trees, yanking at her skirt until it doesn’t cram uncomfortably against her legs. Ser Deez doesn’t come into the godswood with her. She’s within his line of sight—if she were to turn around, she would be able to see the flushing red of his cloak and veil through the elm and alder leaves—but he’s of the Faith; he won’t come into the godswood if he can help it. So she shuts her eyes for a moment, breathing in and out in rhythm with the wind through the branches. She doesn’t pray. She’s not sure she’s believed in any gods, old or new, since her mother was executed. She sits in the grass instead, and breathes clean air.

The Dornish are going to be in the Red Keep a month—two weeks before the Ascension Day, here for the celebrations, and then gone again, back to their ships and their southern, sandy lands. A distraction for the Emperor, to keep his mind off the turmoil in the North. Even with Winterfell sacked and the household scattered to the four winds, the Gerreras have not stopped pinching the Imperial hide. She wonders sometimes if they know how their actions affect her, loyal Saw and savage Steela. If they knew that their cuts into Imperial territory earn her a whipping from the Imperial Guard, she’d thought, years ago when she’d been young and stupid, maybe they’d stop. Maybe they’d remember she was still in the Keep at the Emperor’s mercy, and come to rescue her. But they have not, and they did not, and if they do know, they do not care enough to remember that it is her back the strikes fall on. The Emperor does not take kindly to insurrection, even in the far North, which he cares so little about.

Ascension Day will please him, Jyn thinks, and that will please the court. With the tourney and the celebrations of the Emperor’s fifteen years on the Iron Throne, no one will think to look for her. She can make certain she’s seen at the right events, and then she can retreat back to her rooms and lock the door, or climb the winding stairs to Traitor’s Walk so the wind can cut the air clean around her. Until the Emperor remembers she exists, she will be invisible, and being invisible is much safer than being a rebel. And maybe, with her father returning for Ascension Day, she’ll go away with him to the Eyrie. A childish wish, maybe. She can’t help hoping all the same, fierce enough that it burns her throat.

“It’s going to all be torched soon, you know.”

Jyn lunges to her feet. Three years and any number of beatings to keep her from groping for a blade, but her hand still goes to her hip before she can stop herself. Deez is still standing on the edge of the clearing, his hands hidden beneath his cloak. He does not move. He never does.

“Ser,” says Jyn, trying to keep her voice even. Her stupid heart is thundering in her throat. I didn’t see him. He wasn’t in the Great Hall earlier. How did he find me here? She’s careful not to come to the godswood more than once every few sennights, trying to keep this one lone sanctuary hidden from the rest of the world. The rest of the court just thinks she’s a northern heathen, keeping to the old gods. Why is he here? How did he know?

Rotta looks like his father. She’d only seen Jabba once before he’d returned to his scrabbly little fort on the edge of the desert—a fleshy, wormy sort of man, with jagged teeth half falling out, stinking as though he’d bathed in the musk of a fox—but Rotta looks just like him, the same too-pale skin and bulging eyes. The only truthful man at court, with his insides matching his outsides. He keeps his hands by his sides as he gazes at the heart tree with a kind of grotesque fascination, like he’s never seen something so strange.

“The High Septon told me,” says Rotta. “Before he went to meet the goatfuckers down on the docks. The Emperor wants the godswood burned.”

There’s a strange high buzzing in her ears. She clenches her hands tight into the fabric of her skirt, and says nothing.

“They might cut the trees down first,” Rotta says. “Would be safer. His Imperial Majesty’s got no love for the heathen gods of the north, but setting an acre of old trees on fire in the middle of the Red Keep seems unwise.”

Jyn only breathes when he has his eyes on the woods. When he turns back to look at her, she stops. Her ribs ache with missing air. Rotta’s gaze catches on her gown, too short and straining at the seams, and she thinks, no.

“How do you pray to these old gods of yours, Lady Stark?” Rotta lets his lips peel back from his teeth. “Do you dance naked for them, as wildling women do?”

The spearwives would rip your throat out to hear such talk. It coils like a viper on her tongue, too close to being spoken. It’s too cold beyond the Wall to disrobe even in the snows of summer. To dance naked before a heart tree would be the greatest disrespect, and steal all your fingers and toes besides. Bile rises in her throat, and she swallows it back. She cannot snap at his bait. It’s what he wants. It’s what he always wants. For her to rise to the challenge, and then watch as the guard slap her back down. It was Rotta who’d earned her her second beating by the Emperor, calling her bastard and wolfspawn and Snow with a smile on his lips until she’d burst out with the Stark words. The first had been for begging for her mother’s life. The third, for Saw’s insurrection outside Winterfell. The rest, she supposes, had reasons, but none she remembers well. “No, ser.”

“I’m sure the Emperor would not dare burn the wood were he to know that you did such things, Lady Stark.”

“My name is Jyn Erso,” says Jyn. “My mother was a traitor and a liar, and her name is dust.”

Rotta snaps his teeth together, like a feral hound. He says, “Such bite, Lady Stark. Has the Emperor not found a husband for you, to rid you of that snarling tongue?”

Still. Be still. Be still. The crystal lays warm against her breastbone. She presses her tongue to the roof of her mouth, just for a moment. Between the trees, Deez has not moved. He is nothing more than a red ghost, silent in the face of it all. “I do not mean to snap, ser.”

“The Emperor likes his women with bite, little Stark, but most men know better.” There’s a sword on his hip. When he rests his hand to it, tapping with gloved fingers against the hilt, Jyn has to dig her nails deep into her palm to keep her eyes on his face. “I wonder if whoever you marry will know the way of taming a wolf bitch. I hear tell from those who visit the North that Stark women like to de-ball their stupid husbands and eat their prize.”

Tall, and cold, and strong, she thinks. Like Mother. Jyn puts her shoulders back, and says, “If it please you, ser, I must return to the Great Hall. If, as you say, the High Septon has retired to meet the Dornishmen, they will be arriving soon. The Emperor has requested that we all be in attendance for their presentation to the court.”

Rotta doesn’t speak for a time. His bulging, bulbous eyes roll over her face, head down to her feet, lingering on her hands. She looses her fists, but too late. He’s noticed her fear. His nostrils near flare with it.

“As always, my lady Stark, you’re correct.” He bows his head just slightly. “I’ll speak to you soon, then.”

She curtsies—not a full one, just a little wobbling bob, dipping her head only for a moment before straightening again. Then she turns, and walks—she does not run; she will not run; a woman of the North does not run—along the path back towards the Red Keep, away from Rotta and the eyes that linger, still, on her unprotected back.

Chapter Text

Sea sickness has never troubled Shara. Even as a child, venturing out onto the rare ocean voyage with her Antilles cousins, she’d never once been troubled with a frail stomach. Not like Kes, she thinks, and not like Doryan, though Doryan at least had the wisdom (or the remarkable, wriggling foresight) to not be in Sunspear when the Imperial summons had arrived.

Dorah could not go, their father had reasoned. Not less than five weeks from the birth of her third child, for all that Andors carried easy and birthed well. Their father had always carried a special weakness, a fear of losing those around him close to birthing, and he would not let Dorah out of his sight until he was certain that both Dorah and the babe would survive. Doryan and Lewyn would have been amusing to send to the Empire, Shara thinks, but a slap in the face, too—older, certainly, and experienced warriors, both of them, but Sands, and the North had its foibles. Sands were not worthy of the Empire. And Cassian—no. Cassian was never an option for these sorts of expeditions, not in their father’s eyes, anyway.

He’d handle this better than I. Cassian had the same turn of mind Jeron did, the same wicked kind of political acumen. He’d thrive in a viper’s pit like King’s Landing. Or, at the very least, he’d not be stupid enough to bite into a poisoned tart and convulse to death at a tourney banquet. She has no faith that Palpatine would hold to the guest rights of bread and salt.

“You’re fretting.”

Shara scowls out of the corner of her mouth. Kes is unarmored—unwise, she thinks; they’re sailing into Blackwater Bay, and there are archers on the battlements—and his hair tousles in the wind, overlong and curling around his temples. He reaches out, rests a hand to the small of her back for a lingering moment. All at once, her arms ache for Poe, small and rascally as he is. Cassian is watching him, she thinks. Cassian will be sure their boy is well tended to. He’ll do it himself, if he must. She leans back into Kes’s hand, and shuts her eyes for a moment, leaning into the brush of his mouth against her temple.

“It’s for a month, carad.” Kes nuzzles at the twist of hair over her temples, breathes out. “A handful of sennights. We arrive, we lie, we observe, and then we leave. Survivable, surely.”

Shara keeps her eyes closed. Blackwater Bay stinks of shit and the dead, though she might be imagining the latter. The damp planks of the Tantis warp beneath her weight.

“We should not have come here,” she says. Her stomach rises, finally, when she hears the sailors shouting. Cast off a line! “We should never have come here, Kes.”

“Look at me, carad.”

Shara doesn’t. She can’t. It’s only at the touch of a palm against her cheek and throat, callused from swordwork and riding, thumb brushing soft down her jaw, that she opens her eyes. The sun shines only dimly through heavy clouds, thick with smoke and grief, and Kes tips his head forward to bump the points of their noses together, just for a moment.

“You are not your aunt Bana,” he says. “Palpatine cannot risk angering Dorne with the North nipping at his heels. He’s not so foolish as to fight a war on two fronts. You know that.”

Shara shakes her head, and breathes for a moment. She draws back. “I should not have brought you with me. If neither of us return, then Poe—”

“We will come back,” Kes says, the corners of his lips quirking. He raises one of her hands, and brushes a kiss over the knuckles. “And you could not have forced me to stay. You may use me as you will, highness.”

She makes a disgusted sound, and squeezes his fingers. “Don’t be vile.”

“We’re Dornishmen, aren’t we?” Kes kisses her fingertips, this time, and leaves them pressed to his lips as he says, “They expect us to be filthy heathens.”

Murderers, she thinks. Filthy child-killers. Shara presses a smile onto her face. It’s deliriously fake. “If we must be so.”

He presses a kiss to her shoulder, holds her about the waist for a moment, and then slips away to speak to Captain Antilles. Shara retreats to their cabin. She must change, she reasons. If she is to meet with those of the North, she must properly represent Dorne to its overlords.

She curls her fingers around the crest of the spear-pierced-sun, resting heavy against her breastbone, and breathes.

She’s visited King’s Landing only once before, when she was very, very small; she barely remembers the place. The strongest memory she has is of hiding in the mouth of a dragon skull, trying to keep from giggling as Lewyn nearly fell into a panic at the sight of her alongside the creature’s teeth. It had been centuries dead, if not more, but it’d only been a year since Dorne and the Reach had finished their squabbles, before the Seven Kingdoms had become an Empire. Lewyn had probably been terrified some Reach swornsword had kidnapped her, to hold her hostage against Dorne. He’d not let her out of his sight once for the rest of the trip.

Now, though, King’s Landing’s walls are draped all in Imperial colors. Banners the size of sails have been unfurled over the stone, all brilliant crimson, bearing their white roses. The sigil of House Palpatine. Our Roots Sink Deep, and damn them but they do, the roots of Palpatine and his house. The only blessing is that his seeds don’t seem to sprout too often. Only four children, Shara thinks, as the sailors heave the gangplank onto the dock. Of them, three princes, two older than seven-and-ten, the third barely six, all three bastards. There have been rumors since their birth that Palpatine will legitimize one or the other, but as of yet he’s shown no inclination to do so, and the boys themselves have shown no kind of talent whatsoever, according to what little information comes in to Sunspear. They drink, Shara tells herself. They drink and they hunt wild pigs and they do little else. Palpatine’s not willing to share power, not even with his own sons. And as for his daughter, she’d been married off as soon as she’d first had her blood. 

Too young. Only four and ten, but her betrothal had been bandied about the Red Keep since she’d turned nine, according to Dorne’s spies. Far, far too young to be wedded and bedded. And the North thinks of us as the filthy heathens. 

Wedge, in his guardsman uniform, thumps the butt of his spear against the gangplank. Shara blinks, and stands at attention. They’ve sent a welcoming party. Some of the famed Red Guard are here, their filmy scarlet veils hiding their faces but not their cleanshaven jaws. Black, brown, and white, no set race between them all, no distinct clan. Brought in from Astapor, Yunkai, Meereen, eunuchs and convicts put into tournaments for the prize of being the Emperor’s hounds. They will not blink without permission, she thinks. Nor draw swords. There are others here, too, minor nobility, most of them looking constipated and unhappy at the damp, drizzling rain, the stench of the bay and the docks. Even the High Septon is here, hidden beneath a silken tent, his wispy hair flickering in the ocean breeze. An older man, draped in black, with a red and gold sash crossing over his chest, stands at the base of the gangplank. A golden lion the size of her fist pins the sash to his tunic, keeps it from flying away into the filthy, frothing waters of the Blackwater. Shara puts her shoulders back, wishing, for the first time in many years, that she had a shawl to cover them. Her belly, at least, is covered by her broad belt.

“Princess,” says Tarkin. He dips his head. He does not bow. “It has been a long time since the Empire has been blessed with your presence. I hope your journey was not too storm-tossed.”

“Lord Hand,” says Shara, and lets him take hers. He does not wear gloves. Her skin is crawling. Murderer. “I do not find myself much afflicted with seasickness, though I do not think the rest of our party was so blessed.”

Just behind her, Kes scoffs. He does not do it quietly.

She’d met Tarkin, too, she thinks. Back when she had still been small enough to hide, giggling, in a dragon’s mouth. He’s paler than he used to be, the Lord Hand of the Emperor. His hair has receded. His eyes are just the same, though. Sharp and cold, like blocks of iron. Back then, he’d not yet murdered her aunt. Back then, he’d been little more than a wealthy lord from a great house who’d shooed her off rather than speak to her. It must irk him, she thinks, to scrape and tug his forelock before her now, with her aunt’s blood on his hand. Her little cousins, too, both of them, small and fair like their father. Child-killer. Monster. Murderer. He bows over her hand, and then releases it. “The High Septon, Your Highness.”

Joruus C’baoth, she thinks, is a snake. The wrinkles around his mouth are frown-lines, not joyous; when he holds out his hand for her to kiss his ring of office, he does it with his nose crumpled, as if she’s brought the stink with her. Nothing more than the twin of a hedge knight, she thinks. Elected to the seat of the Most Holy through sheer bribery and corruption. Not a man of faith, and certainly not chosen by the Seven. Shara dips anyway, presses her lips to the ring, and then rises again. The High Septon has not had so much power as ages past that she must kneel until she is bidden to rise. The Emperor has seen to that. “Your Grace.”

“Lady Andor,” says the High Septon. Shara forces her lips into another smile.

“If I remember rightly, Your Grace, the Great Family of Dorne still retains its royal titles, even if we no longer have kings.”

Whatever C’baoth wants to say, Tarkin extinguishes it. Shara’s not entirely sure what the twitch to Tarkin’s fingers means—shut up; don’t speak; be still—but C’baoth does all three. A puppet, she thinks. And a bitter one at that. One Tarkin must keep on a tight leash.

“What a shame,” says Tarkin, “that your brothers and sister could not also attend.”

“My sister Dorah is nearing the birth of her third son, and as she is our father’s heir, he prefers to keep her close,” says Shara. “As for my brothers—one is too young, and the others are away on their circuits, on behalf of House Andor. I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me.”

C’baoth breathes out, sharp. “I was given to understand your brother Doryan was Prince Jeron’s heir.”

“Of course he isn’t, Most High,” says Shara. Her curiousness sounds false, even to her, but it is necessary. She cannot be tart, here. Not as she would like. “Dorah is the eldest. It would not be proper to pass her over in favor of Doryan; he’s four years younger, after all.”

“A woman cannot rule a nation,” says C’baoth. “Especially not one that births only bastards.”

Shara says, “Bastards are not so despised in Dorne as they are in the North, Most High. We keep our children close, be they born of wedlock or passion. It matters little, for a child is a child, are they not?”  

“Dorne,” says Tarkin, “keeps to older, more—eastern ways than us, Most High. Mayhap they’ll prove us wrong, yet.”

“Mayhap, my lord,” says Shara. “For the blood of the Andals and of the Rhoynar still runs strong with us. We keep to old paths, well-trodden.”

Tarkin’s lips curl, as if she’s waved shit beneath his nose. He says, “As you say, Highness.”

She finally frees her hand from his grip. Shara does not wipe it on the filmy fabric of her gown, though she wishes she could. Murderer. Murderer. Traitor. Child-killer. She says, “If I may introduce my companion, Kes, of House Dameron.”

Kes bows, only once. “My lords.”

Tarkin’s brow furrows, slowly. It looks, she thinks, like a snake coiling to strike. “Forgive me, Highness. We were given to understand that you would not be bringing any companions. No rooms have been prepared.”

“Kes will stay with me,” says Shara, and catches Kes’s hand, lifts it to her lips to kiss his fingertips. C’baoth rumbles again, but does not speak. “We are well used to it.”

“After nine years,” says Kes, smiling much more easily. His eyes are stony cold. “One tends to become so.”

One of the lordlings, another Tarkin by the look of his red and gold silks, whispers behind his hand to his companion. Kes’s fingers curl tight around hers.

“We best not keep the Emperor waiting,” says Shara. Tarkin’s iron eyes flick back to her face.

“His Imperial Majesty has retired for the afternoon with a headache, Your Highness. He will greet you at the banquet this evening, to honor your arrival.” Tarkin gestures to the crowd, and it parts in his wake, his sash still flickering in the seaside wind. “Until then, we beg you rest and recover from your long journey. Litters have been brought for you, to bear you to the Red Keep. And please, forgive the smell.”

“I have been here before, Lord Hand,” says Shara. “I remembered the smell.”

Tarkin does not smile.

It takes several hours to get everything sorted, mostly because it takes over an hour to get from the docks up to the Red Keep; the smallfolk crush into the streets, trying to determine which litter belongs to the Dornishmen, or to beg alms from the rich folk in their carriages, and the city guard must wade in and beat off the more determined or the more desperate. A maid has been assigned to tend to her needs—a Tarkin girl, she thinks, no doubt, bought and paid for to whisper secrets—but as Shara makes a point of doing her own hair, and Kes is around to help with the rest, their rooms, at least, will be a little more private. Shara would have preferred to not stay in the Keep at all, but she could think of no proper excuse to remain elsewhere, and retribution for refusing the Emperor’s hospitality, however cold it may be, would be swift. The Maidenvault, at least, is clean and beautiful; full of nobles visiting the capital on behalf of the Emperor’s Ascension Day, and full of neighbors, at least, who might hear her scream.

The sun is setting by the time another maid knocks on the door. Shara settles the final twisting braid in place, pins it down with the too-long ornament, and does not look away from the mirror. It’s Kes who replies, indolent on his back with one leg raised and his robes falling open. The old scar over his bare belly stretches white and broad, and draws her eyes. “Yes?”

“If it please m’lord,” says the maid who opens the door, and gods, she can’t be more than thirteen at most. Small and fine-boned. A tiny, nervous, darting thing, like a titmouse, and pale as milk with fear at the sight of the two Dornish heathens. She flushes pink at the sight of Kes, even as he sits up and his robes settle back into place again. “The lords and ladies are gathering for the banquet in the Great Hall.”

Kes, tugging at his belt to fix his clothes, says, “How old are you, child?”

“Two-and-ten, m’lord,” says the little maid, and wobbles into a sloppy curtsy. “I’m to show you to the Hall, m’lord, m—Highness. If you’re ready.”

“Don’t be frightened of him, little one,” says Shara, and she shifts around in her seat. Kes tucks the last flap of his robes into place, and then stands. The long, slim knife on his belt, at least, brings her comfort. She touches its mate on her own hip, and then stands. “He means you no ill will.”

The little titmouse of a maid wobbles down into another, deeper curtsy. “Yes, Highness.”

“A work in progress,” says Kes, and stands behind her to close his teeth very gently over her earlobe. Shara sighs, and whacks her hand to his bare chest. Thankfully, the little maid kept her eyes on the ground, and hasn’t noticed.

Atall, carad.”

Kes sighs, and rests his head to her shoulder. The game is truly on, then, she thinks, and her stomach curdles. He’d never do something so shallow, if he weren’t playing a game.

“Lead on, little one,” says Shara, and the tiny maid scoots out the door without looking back.

The Great Hall lives up to its name: built in the time of the Skywalkers, long, long before the Seven Kingdoms had folded into one Empire, the fort had originally claimed to be able to host over fifteen hundred of its bannermen, with a hall large and strong enough to allow a dragon to spread his wings and not touch its walls. All the dragons have long since died, so there’s no way to tell if it’s true, but there must be close to a thousand here in this stinking hall, all the candles lit and crafted with wax laid with jasmine and too-sweet magnolia. Expensive. Brought from Essos. And dripping wax everywhere. The floor is already crusted with it, and alongside the braziers, the heavy wooden tables groaning with freshly cooked meat, and the thronging crowds, the hall is so hot and humid as to make sweat dribble down the length of her spine. Kes sticks close to her side as she winds her way into the hall, ignoring the footman they’ve set by the door to announce her—“Princess Shara of House Andor, daughter of Prince Jeron Andor and Lady Himena Bey of Starfall, and her paramour, Kes of House Dameron”—and the sudden hush that falls in the wake of her name. Her fingers itch for her dagger.  

“This way, Highness,” says the little maid, and then she darts forward into the crowd. Her shabby little gown only barely stands out amongst the rich silks of the court ladies, who all retreat from Shara as if she bears greyscale. If only being Dornish were catching, she thinks. This place would stink much less.

If Joruus C’baoth is a snake, then Emperor Palpatine is a lizard. Slower, more prone to stillness, but just as fast and just as deadly, when he has need. A woman in rich cloth-of-gold is seated beside him at the high table, just slightly lower—the Empress’s seat, for all Palpatine has been unmarried for these past fifteen years—and her son, the six-year-old princelet Irek, settled dozing on her lap in matching cloth-of-silver. On Palpatine’s left, a seat stands empty. No place for Kes, she thinks, and lets him slide his hand into hers. They would make do.

“Princess Shara,” says Palpatine, and the whole room goes quiet. Tarkin is at the High Table, on the other side of the empty seat; he steeples his fingers, and watches. “Here you are, at last.”

Shara slides down into a Dornish curtsy. Not a frilly, pretty thing like the ladies of the Empire do, but resting one knee on the stone floor, dipping her head and letting the ear cuffs slide forward, the gems tickling at her neck. Kes bows two steps behind her, and does not lift his head. “Imperial Majesty,” she says, and her voice, and its slight quaver, ring out in a suddenly silent hall. “I bring you greetings and congratulations from my father, Prince Jeron, upon your Ascension Day. May you rule for many more.”

The stone beneath her feet is stained. Someone’s tried to scrub it away—she can see the scrapes, the flicking marks from heavy brushes even in the dim light—but there’s old blood, here. It marks stone in a way that cannot be truly cleaned. “You have grown much prettier,” says Palpatine, “and much taller, since last we saw you, Princess.”

“Eighteen years and more have passed since then, Imperial Majesty. I would hope that I have at least grown taller.”

Palpatine does not laugh. He rasps, just slightly, and then the court laughs for him, a tittering, mocking thing. Her peach-colored silks crumple under her knee. “You may rise,” he says, after much longer than he should. Shara stands, and behind her, Kes stands with her. “This must be your swordsman.”

“My lover, Imperial Majesty.” Shara does not look back at him. “The father of my son.”

“I recall that you’ve birthed a Sand,” says Palpatine. “Your family seems rich with Sands, Princess Shara. All your brothers are Sands, are they not?”

“Two of them, Imperial Highness. The third is not.”

“I would have thought him illegitimate,” says Palpatine, “after what happened to his mother.”

“Princess Yasmín remains in her household. Her marriage to my father has not ended.” The woman in the Empress’s seat—Ismaren, that’s the sigil stitched into her heavy golden gown; Lady Ismaren—curls her fingers around her son’s small arm, and he murmurs in his sleep. Younger than Poe, if just barely. Still just barely out of the chubbiness of the toddling. “My brothers Doryan and Lewyn are still Sands, and Lewyn, at least, has fathered Sands of his own, as has my sister, Dorah. Dorne is a desert country, Majesty. It only seems right to add as much sand as possible.”

“As you say,” says Palpatine. He flicks his long fingers. “Please, take your seat. I’m afraid there was not enough room for another chair to be added. I’m told my Hand did try.”

“I thank Your Imperial Majesty for his graciousness, but there was no need for Lord Tarkin to trouble himself.” Shara mounts the dais, and lets Kes take the chair first, settling between his knees. The crowd hisses, but does not comment. “We are comfortable enough as it is, Majesty.”

Palpatine’s lips draw back from his pale teeth. He says, “As you say.”

I am a headstrong, foolish, flirty, ridiculous bastard-bearing woman to these people. Shara leans back into Kes’s chest, and makes sure her dagger is within easy reach. There is no point in behaving any different.

Slowly, the nobles file into their seats. A girl, probably not more than five-and-ten, wearing Eryie blue, settles into a chair at the corner of the room and begins to sing. Her voice is lower than Shara would expect, a little rougher around the edges than most court bards, but there’s a certain aching, lonely sweetness to it that makes her stop wondering why Palpatine’s chosen this one to be his songbird. Shara watches her for a while, pretending not to pay attention to whatever Lady Ismaren is whispering to the Emperor. A small, pale thing, with dark hair; she can’t make out more, not at this distance.

“Ah,” says Tarkin, and Shara bids herself not to flinch. It’s a near thing. She has to rest her hand to the table, before she draws her blade. “Most don’t notice her presence so quickly, Your Highness. Credit to you.”

The bard, in her corner, draws a breath, and sings, In a coat of gold or a coat of red, a lion still has claws—

Shara finds a grape on her plate—unlikely to be poisoned; fruit is difficult, in its freshest form, to taint—and pops it into her mouth. “She’s only a bard. I simply wondered why His Imperial Majesty has not contracted a singer with more training.”

And mine are long and sharp, my lord; as long and sharp as yours.

On Palpatine’s other side, Lady Ismaren laughs in a way that should not sound as cruel as it does. The small boy on her lap stirs, and blinks himself awake with pale blue eyes. “The little bitch can’t sing so much as caterwaul. She can barely hold a note.”

“She serves her purpose,” says Palpatine, and Lady Ismaren immediately falls silent.

“If her purpose is not to sing, Majesty, I do not understand.” Something cold has roosted in her throat. Shara turns to look at the girl again—four-and-ten? Five-and-ten? It’s difficult to tell, from afar, and she’s so small, this little thing, her dress cheap and drab in comparison to the other women here, not even a bard’s cloak to cover her—and swallows a little. “Why is she here?”

The girl lifts her head a little higher, her eyes closed. And so he spoke, and so he spoke, that lord of Castamere—

“You are to be forgiven, Your Highness, for not recognizing her colors.” Tarkin keeps his face still, his eyes intent on Shara’s face. “She is the daughter of the Imperial Maester, and the Emperor’s ward. Jyn, of House Erso.”

Stark. It springs to her lips. Jyn, of House Stark. Daughter of Lyra, traitor to the Empire. Kes, behind her, breathes out sharp against her ear. Shara watches her, the little girl in her thin drab dress, her hair looped in a braid up around her head. She’s no bigger than a child, but her voice is low, and strong for all its wavering, steady and true. A brave girl, Shara thinks, to sing in the hall where her mother died, with so little hesitation. A steady girl. A clever girl, to follow orders, to keep her life.

Or a broken one, her common sense whispers. Maybe not brave, or steady, or clever, but broken so utterly she no longer feels at all.

But an unfeeling girl, a broken, hopeless girl, would not sing so sadly. An unfeeling, broken, hopeless girl would not dare sing The Rains of Castamere as anything other than a triumph, as it was meant when it was penned on behalf of Lord Tarkin before he became Hand, many, many years ago, when he ended an uprising by House Sayu, under his father’s reign as the Lord of Casterly Rock. She would not sing it as a lament for a lost house, Shara thinks. She would not dare to sing it as a dirge.

But now the rains weep o’er his hall, with no one there to hear.

“I see,” says Shara. She makes herself look away. “I did not know.”

“It is a kindness, Your Highness,” says Lady Ismaren. “Perhaps you don’t know. Her mother hailed from a now extinct line, cast from the books for treason; they traced their bloodline through the mothers. By all rights, the girl should have been executed along with her traitor mother, but through the Emperor’s great mercy, she lives, and studies, and sings as she wishes on behalf of the Imperial Court. She is lucky to be alive, Your Highness, and she is well aware of it. Pay her no mind.”

Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall, sings the girl, and not a soul to hear.

Kes presses his hand to her thigh, and taps at her knee with his fingertips four times. Arrive, he means. Arrive, lie, observe, and then leave.

Shara wonders.

Chapter Text

The Dornishmen have been watching her.

Jyn keeps to herself. She has no business with the Dornish, and the Dornish have no business with her; to watch them in turn would only draw the attention that she does not want. The Emperor is irritable enough, with news trickling in from his latest forays in the North. He’d sent an army of Kyrell men up into the lands around Saltspear, trying to root out handfuls of Stark loyalists in the Barrowlands. The Gerreras’ insurrection hasn’t come further south than the Neck, mostly because of the massive armies that Imperial loyalists have kept posted between the Twins and Greywater Watch, but further north, in the Rills and the Barrowlands and along the Flint Cliffs, the rebellion has not ended. Kyrells are dying in waves of blood, and their bodies left to rot on the plains, and if any more die the Emperor will take his rage against the Gerreras out on her. She doesn’t need a nosy, spoiled Dornishwoman making things worse.

Ascension Day is only two days away, now, and she’s managed to keep out of the way for the last two sennights. The godswood is no longer safe, not if Rotta’s found her there; nor are her rooms, since the whole of the Keep knows she is kept in the Tower of the Hand, as she’d been when her mother was living. So Tarkin can keep a close eye on her, more than likely. So it’s more difficult for her to make her way out of the Keep. Not that she could anyway, with guards on every door, but leaving the Tower of the Hand means traversing half the Keep to make her way to any way out into the city, and someone is sure to see her, should she try.

She keeps to the sept, most days. There are gardens outside the Maidenvault, and she’ll wander those, if she’s sure the Dornish princess and her lover are nowhere near. Ser Deez has been relieved; replaced by Garoche Tarkin, who, she imagines, will be trailing after her all through the weeks following Ascension Day. Having the Hand’s own son following her from place to place is enough to keep her from going unseen.

Today, though, she is expected to attend the tourney. There will be several of them, before, on, and after the anniversary of the Emperor’s ascension, but this one is the first, and she has been placed in the stands alongside the rest of the chosen few who will be watching from uncomfortable, splintering benches, draped with red and white silk to hide their sharp edges. A maid wakes her before dawn by unlocking her door, and uses a boar-bristle brush to twist Jyn’s hair up into a mess of curls and braids that will make it far too easy for someone to fist their hand in it and yank. She has a new gown, too, one made of silk, but too tight across her chest and hips and shoulders. She can’t lift her arms very high. Like a doll, she thinks. Meant to sit in one place and be still and look pretty. The dress, and the ribbons the maid weaves into the thin braids framing her face, are all Eyrie blue.

Her father, she thinks, is returning today. He will be here for the tourney. For the first time in three years, he will be back in King’s Landing, and she can beg him to take her away with him to the Eyrie. And this will end.

Jyn lets the maid paint kohl from Essos onto her eyes, color on her lips, and rests two fingers to her crystal, concealed beneath the gown. She breathes.

The fields just outside King’s Landing have been cleared of brush and elk over the last few weeks, and the grasses beaten down to earth to allow for tents, a track, fencing and stalls and flags hanging from deeply-sunken wooden poles, to mark a place for each competing family. A handful of Tarkin cousins have already gathered underneath the red-and-gold lion, laughing and watching another trying to balance a sword by the pommel on the palm of his hand. House Kyrell, with its falling star sigil; House Hutt with its limbless wyrm; the flower-meshed scales of House Naberrie; the outstretched hand of House Ismaren; the dancing doe of House Organa; the spear of House Wren. Even the Emperor’s son will be participating. He’ll likely win, Jyn thinks, and lifts her skirts to avoid a pile of horse shit from one of the chargers. Nobody wants to harm the Emperor’s son, for all that he’s a Waters. He’ll be safer in this play-tourney, where no one aims to kill, and the only prize at the end of the day is a crown of laurels.  

“This way, Lady Erso,” says Ser Garoche, and shifts back, out of her way, to let her pass him up onto the stairs. Jyn doesn’t look at him. Garoche Tarkin might be more polite to her than the others, might look at her with a little more sadness in his face, like he mourns what she is, but that doesn’t mean she will pay him any more attention than any of the other Red Guard. He would not lift a hand to help if the Emperor doused her in wildfire. She cannot trust him, or his sad, pitying eyes.

Nobody looks at her as she ascends, or as she takes her seat. She’s more towards the front—the worse view, for the far end of the track; the better one for blood—and as she takes her place, Lady Ismaren leans forward in the Empress’s chair to watch her do it. In three years, Jyn’s not been able to tell if the Lady Ismaren keeps an eye on her purely for the pleasure of bloodsport, or if the Emperor bid her watch when Jyn is in her sight. Might be either. Might be both. Might be hatred, though for what, Jyn has no idea. She dips her head to Lady Ismaren, and ignores the sneer that leaps across her powdered face, there and gone, hidden in the wake of the trumpets.

All rise for Princess Shara of Dorne!”

Jyn stands, and drops into her curtsy. There are two empty seats behind her; another to her right; and the Dornishwoman and her lover file in to the pair at her back. It puts them on the far side of the Emperor’s chair from Lady Ismaren, which Jyn can only assume was intentional. It also makes certain they have two seats, which, considering their behavior at the welcoming feast and at nearly every feast since, is as pointed a hint as Jyn’s ever seen in this court without bloodshed. Thankfully, Dameron does seem to take his own seat, even if Jyn refuses to turn around and check. There’s a whisper of what might be Rhoynish, and then a soft laugh from Princess Shara. They don’t matter, right now, not when her papa is so close, not when he might—when she might be free of this place, when she might—

Peace. Calm. Jyn rests her fingers to the lump of her crystal, just beneath her collar, and sets her face to grit and iron. Milady Stoneface, her mother would call it, and then laugh and say she takes after you, Steela, I let you train her too often

“Lady Erso,” says a soft, accented voice, and Jyn nearly jumps out of her own shoes at the lightest touch on her shoulder. On her left, Ser Garoche lets his hand rest against the hilt of his sword. It’s the Dornish princess; she lets her hand fall back to her knee, and looks artfully contrite. “I apologize, Lady Erso, I did not mean to startle you.”

Damn. Damn, damn. Damn. She’s going to track down whoever arranged the seating for this tourney, and she’s going to wring their bloody necks. Jyn wets her teeth. “Your Highness.”

“Forgive me for disturbing you, but I wished to tell you—you have a lovely voice, Lady Erso.”

Jyn doesn’t speak. She keeps her lips pressed together, looking at this Dornishwoman, with her dark hair and her dark, sharp eyes. Dameron, next to her, watches as the first two riders take their places at opposite ends of the track to prepare, but—he might be listening, she thinks. He has his ears pricked at attention, for all his belly’s gone unguarded as his robes fall open at the ribs.

“Thank you,” says Jyn after too long a silence. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. “I—thank you, Your Highness.”

“I wonder,” says Princess Shara. “I’m entertaining in the Maidenvault, tonight—would you be willing to come and sing for us? I would be most indebted if you did.”

Jyn can’t reply. Her soft “oh” is lost in a flurry of skirts and creaking seats as the first riders take their places on the field, in the rattle of Garoche Tarkin’s blade at his side and the roar of the smallfolk, crammed up against the fences. Jyn barely hears it. Sing for them? Like a kind of trained canarybird? She could say no. She should say no, lest it draw the Emperor’s attention, she cannot afford—

All rise for His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Sheev Palpatine, First of His Name, King of the—

The Emperor’s party. Her heart skips. Papa. If her father is anywhere, then he’ll be with the Emperor, won’t he, the Imperial Maester has his place at a tourney like this one and it’s—

there.

He’s older. That shocks her, though she doesn’t know why it should. He looks older, and thinner. As though he’s aged decades in a night. There are sharp lines around his nose and mouth that she doesn’t remember from Winterfell. The bones of his face stand out, glacier sharp and sheer as a cliff’s edge. He carries a cane, now. The head of it is carved with arcing bird’s wings, and as he shuffles to his place between Tarkin and the High Septon, he puts all his weight on it as though it’s a third leg, shoulders back, body stooped. There's a dark-skinned man standing just beside him, murmuring, like a secretary or a nurse. Her heart is rushing, too fast; she’s dizzy. Her ribs ache with the strain of breathing in this too-tight dress. Papa. Papa. Papa.

Tall and cold and strong. She’ll see him at the party, after. To celebrate the winner. She’ll speak to him. She must. Soon. Patience. Have patience, stardust.

She turns her face back to the track, and lets the rush fill her ears.

Unlike the jousts scheduled for tomorrow, the knights today are mostly fresh-minted; a handful were squires a few years ago, when she’d first arrived at King’s Landing. She can remember their pockmarked, whey-colored faces peeking out of their master’s livery and sigils as they ran to collect broken lances off the field, resettle a new breastplate on a knight’s chest and dance back before he could clip their ears. She remembers being so horrifically jealous of them, down there on the field while she and her mother had been stuck in the stands for all that they were better than any of the knights on the field. (Papa, Papa, it thrums up her throat and she shoves it back down, don’t let them see any of it, don’t show your hand, Jyn—) Ser Laury of House Naberrie ends the first bout without fuss; the point of his lance strikes home in the Kyrell knight’s armor, and knocks him clean off his roan stallion, landing so hard he splits his scalp on the interior of his cheap helmet. When his squire peels it off his head, blood pours down the back of his armor in vicious streaks; the stallion snorts and hops from one side to the other until another few boys catch him, and pull him off the field. “Blood,” says Ser Garoche, next to her. “They’re trained to ignore it, mostly, but—”

“I have some experience with warhorses, ser,” Jyn says, before she can stop herself. Garoche closes his mouth, and fixes his eyes on the track.

The first death comes within an hour. Sweat dribbles down the back of her neck. The sun has risen enough to cast light off the armor of approaching knights, and it’s what throws the Wren boy off; he fumbles his lance, leans too far in, and the Tarkin knight he’s riding against shifts just a little and drives his lance hard into the metal coating his shoulder. Splinters flare. One of them—perfectly shaped, too-sharp and cruel—drives deep into the Wren boy’s neck. He falls back off his horse, gurgles in the mud, and lays still; blood bubbles over his lips, sprays and falls as the arteries pump and the life bleeds away. Jyn watches, for a moment, and then looks to the horse. The mare’s prancing back and forth, blood coating her flank from the arterial spray. She nearly takes the head off the nearest squire who must catch her, and she’s still screaming as she’s led away. 

She curls her hands together on her lap, and presses her thumb hard into the opposite palm. It does not stop her hands from shaking.

There will be a break in the tourney, soon. The Emperor can’t sit for so long in the heat without needing to retire to a tent, and the tourney will not continue without him; once he stands to depart, she can move, find her father in the melee, maybe—maybe actually speak to him, if Tarkin and Krennic are not there to watch over them. If he’ll see her—he’s not written, he’s not sent her messages, not done anything, but any letters would be monitored, if she goes to him in person, maybe, then—

“Lady Erso,” says Ser Garoche, and Jyn blinks. There’s a fresh red rose, stolen from one of the planters bracing the entrance to the tourney, she thinks, hung in midair over the railing by an armored fist. She looks at it, and for a moment she can’t understand what it’s doing there—the princess is behind her, and Princess Shara is the one who should be receiving tokens of favor like this. Then, slowly, her eyes focus on the sigil on the armor—a yellow wyrm, twisting across steel—and then the helm—and—

Ser Garoche elbows her in the side, and says, “Lady Erso.

She reaches out with a numb, mechanical hand, and does as she ought. The thorns on the rose prick hard at her fingers as she takes it, drawing blood. It drips on her blue skirt. Jyn doesn’t care. She does not say thank you. She looks at the flower, and then up at Rotta, and she fancies she can see his face through the grill of his helmet. His bulging eyes, she’s sure, are gleaming.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, and then he’s pulled his reins in tight, curving his horse’s neck. It’s a cruel bit he’s put the mare in, spiked on each side and cutting into her lips. Blood runs over her mouth. They’re the new rage, among the knights. It makes their mounts seem like flesh-eating demons of legend. Jyn looks at the mare, instead of the dead body on the ground, and her heart aches. “Lord Maester. I would beg a boon from you.” 

His voice is loud and clear enough to draw the Emperor’s attention. Her father’s too. Jyn turns, and the rose in her hands twists and turns as Galen lifts his head, very slowly. He blinks as though he’s not quite seeing anyone properly.

“Oh?” The Emperor lets his teeth show. “And what would that be?”

Please no. An unspeakable dread leaps up through her stomach, along her spine, her fingers, dancing like strips of lightning. No, please. No. But she can’t speak. Endure. Endure. Endure. She should have run from here years ago. She should have fled.

You are of the North. You are stronger than this. Keep your head down. Survive.

Rotta does not look back at her. He sits up straighter in his saddle, the yellow wyrm on his chest flickered with specks of mud. He says, “If I win today, Imperial Majesty, I would ask that you grant Lady Erso’s hand in marriage.”

The world goes grey at the edges. Jyn sways back, and lifts a hand to her mouth. The scent of the rose is sick in her mouth.

“I thought you were already married,” says the Emperor. It comes wavery and echoing, as if from a great distance. “Do I misremember?”

“My wife passed several moons ago, imperial majesty, in childbirth. The babe as well.” Rotta tips his head, like a hunting dog. “If my lord Maester consents, I would take the girl to wife.”

Silence. Her heart beats, and beats, and beats.

“I have no objection,” says Papa, almost too soft for her to hear. He does not look at her. “If your imperial majesty does not.”

She can’t speak. Her lungs lock. There are no words for how this feels, this endless, beating terror. This emptiness. Papa. Papa. But—no—I— She’s going to be sick. She’s going to vomit onto her dress. She’s going to scream. She’s going to faint. She crushes her hand around the head of the rose, until blood and petals squeeze between her shaking fingers. She looks at her knees. She can’t breathe. There are knees cramming into her back, a voice in her ear from Garoche. She cannot understand him. She must listen. Please no. Please no. Please no. Papa, please. He’s not even spoken to her—he’s not—he—

“How—amusing.” There’s a moment, an artful pause. The Emperor loves his theatre. “I accept your terms, ser. If you win, you can have the girl. One hopes she’ll breed better than her predecessor.”

She has to get out. She has to get out. She stands, and lets the rose fall, fists her skirts in her hands and moves. Nobody stops her. They might be too shocked to even reach out. She clatters down the stairs, turns. Somebody’s following her, she can hear the heavy boots, and she rests a hand to the meatknife on her belt before realizing, no, not big enough, she can’t do so much as prick a finger on it, she must find something else, she must run, run, run, and there’s laughter behind her, a voice, “Looks like the little bride is shy, Hutt,” and she can’t breathe

There’s a hand on her arm. She wrenches free, and Rotta—blinks. He’s taken off his helmet, and she’s shocked him, that she’s strong enough to yank out of his grip. He hadn’t expected that. Jyn fists her hand around her wee meatknife, and says, “Forgive me, ser, I am—unwell.”

Let me go.

“One would think you were frightened of me, Lady Stark.” Ser Garoche is there, behind him. His red cloak is stained at the bottom with horse shit and blood, and he looks at her, mournfully, over Rotta’s shoulder. He says nothing. “I hope not. If I win, we’ll be man and wife, you know.”

I’d rather die, she thinks. I will run from this place and be hunted down and slain like an animal before I ever let you touch me. She says, “I am unwell.”

Papa. The raw, shredded place in her chest throbs. Papa. How could you?

“Go fetch her wine,” says Rotta, and Ser Garoche goes. He looks at her, for a moment, only for a moment—Jyn looks back, begs him with no shame in her anymore, silently, no, please, don’t, don’t—and he goes, his red cloak swirling around his boots as he walks back between the tents, and vanishes.

“One thing that must be clear, Lady Stark.” Rotta’s eyes are fixed on her face, his wormy lips curled back from his teeth. His painted wyrm across his breastplate is pale yellow, and almost wriggling in the reflection of light from the sun. She fixes her eyes on that, rather than his face. He says, “When we’re married, if you ever humiliate me like that again, I will rip your hair out of your foolish little head.”

Her guts are churning. She can barely breathe. She wants to bite, to kick. If she attacks, she’s dead. If she runs, she’s dead. Cold and quiet and empty as the North, but Papa, Papa, how could you, how could you do this— “Forgive me, ser,” says Jyn. Her voice is faint, even to her. “I—I am afraid I am—unwell, ser, I must—”

Rotta seizes her arm again. It’s punishment, this time. The gauntlet digs hard into her flesh, and Jyn bites her tongue rather than whine. She will not bow. She will not submit. “Do you hear me?” Rotta says, and he shakes her once, his eyes wider and wider, she could put her thumbs in them, burst them— “If you ever—”

He stops. His eyes drop to the neck of her gown, and she thinks, for a moment, that he’s seen someone. Then she looks, and her whole body flares cold. Her crystal’s fallen free of her gown, catching against the fabric of her collar, and she can tell, the instant Rotta realizes; his nostrils flare, his thin lips twist, and he smiles, sharp and cruel, and no, please, no

“Lady Stark,” he says, and his voice is a croon. “Is that kyber?”

“It’s nothing.” She twists free of his hand, presses her palm flat over the crystal. “It’s nothing.”

“How did you get that?” He wets his lips, looking at her, head to toe all over again, and in her tight dress Jyn shudders, unable to help herself. “Did you ask someone to steal it for you? Did you sneak in yourself?”

“It’s glass,” says Jyn, but the words stumble. Her back is to the fabric of the tent, and she can’t get away. “It’s nothing, just a charm from White Harbor—” 

“Did you pay for it with a kiss, little Stark?” He wets his lips again, and steps forward, until he’s so close she can’t breathe, the smoke and blood and sweat of him making her choke on bile, the stink of ruptured guts still on his hands, and she can’t breathe— “Or did you use that pretty mouth of yours on the guardsman’s—”

Jyn strikes him. She doesn’t plan it. She doesn’t even think. She lifts her hand, and slaps him across the face with all her strength, catching him across the jaw and cheek with her nails digging deep. She strikes him hard, and Rotta howls, stumbling back, his armor clattering and the sword on his hip catching on the wall of the tent opposite, rending a hole the length of her leg. There’s blood under her fingernails when she closes her hand around the crystal, backing up, away, away, she must run

“Little bitch.” Rotta’s teeth are bloody. He spits, and she wonders if he bit his lip, his tongue. His mouth runs red with it. His eyes are scorching, bulging out of his head with rage. “Little thieving whore—”

“Lord Rotta,” says a voice, and in the same instant there’s a small body between her and Rotta, with long tumbling dark hair and bare shoulders and thin silks over a slender back. It’s Princess Shara, and her hand is on the dagger at her hip, fingers curled close around the hilt. Her lover is there, too, and Dameron takes Jyn’s elbow without even thinking about it, standing at her shoulder like he can do something. Jyn flinches, and jerks back from the touch. Rotta’s hand is on his longsword, the blade half-drawn. “Forgive us, ser, for interfering, but when my lady Erso departed so abruptly we were quite concerned. She seems very unwell.”

Rotta is not stupid. He looks between the Dornish princess and the man at her side, at the blades and the witnesses, and then he slides his longsword back into its scabbard. He says, “I was attempting to help her to the healing tents. She was in too much of a panic to recognize me, I think.”

Jyn shakes her head, numbly, and looks at the churned earth at her feet. The hem of her gown is still stained with blood and flecks of offal, spattered with dark mud from the track. Rotta will tell. She’s managed to keep the crystal hidden all this time, three whole years, stealing it off Krennic’s desk in the Maester’s rooms and hiding it from maids, guards, nobles, anyone who might recognize it for what it is, but—Rotta will tell. The Emperor will hear of this.

Her stomach cramps.

“There are guardsmen searching for you, ser,” says Princess Shara. Her voice is iron cold. “You are due to run your joust. I will take care of Lady Erso in your stead.”

He’s beaten. He can’t harm the Dornish princess, because then Dorne will rise, and the Emperor will be furious. He can’t harm her lover, because that will enrage the princess. He’s caught, Jyn thinks, between two hard walls, and Rotta knows it. He spits blood one last time, and then he walks away, his cheek still bleeding freely from the gouges left by her nails. It’s only once he’s gone that Princess Shara turns, and takes Jyn’s hand, inspecting her nails.

“Good girl,” says Princess Shara. Her eyes are hard. “You fought back.”

“No,” says Jyn, and then she shuts her mouth, because she can’t tell them what that means. They should know what that means. I struck him. He’ll tell the Emperor I hit him, that I have kyber. They’ll kill me. And her father hadn’t even looked at her.

How could you? How could you? How could you?  

“Has he done this before? Pinned you like this?”

I am silent, she tells herself, and swallows bile back. I am stone. I am the ice of the North. But the panic has leached deep into her bones, and the shakes have begun, the uncontrollable ones from after she has terrible nightmares, or like when she’d been taken up to Traitor’s Walk for the first time to see her mother’s rotting head, and she can’t stop. She’s cold. Jyn breathes deep through her nose, and shuts her eyes, and nods.

One of them hisses. Dameron, she thinks. They speak in Rhoynish for a moment, back and forth in syllables she can’t parse. Then there are thin fingers pressing against the palm of her hand, and a cloak being draped around her shoulders. Her hands shake.

“Come,” says the princess Shara. “You need quiet. And tea, I think.”

They make it five whole yards before Jyn faints.

.

.

.

She wakes in a dim room, with a cool cloth on her brow, and Princess Shara reading beside her.

Jyn sits up too fast. The world spins, for a dreadful moment—sick and whirling, like a child’s toy, too many pieces all buzzing out of place. Then it steadies, and she rests a hand to the meatknife on her hip—too small, much too small—before she wets her lips. “Where am I?”

“The Maidenvault.” Princess Shara sets one letter aside, and picks up another. She does not look up from the text. “You’ve not been out long. Kes went to fetch a maester.”

“No,” Jyn says. “No, no—no maester.”

“You fainted, little one.” Princess Shara’s accent is strange, Jyn thinks, but it’s not unpleasant. Lilting. Her smooth brown skin is unmarked, aside from a few small scars on her forearms. Like her mother’s, Jyn thinks. Marks from bladework. Jyn looks up at the princess, and then back at her feet again. “The maester should look at you.”

No. It’s on her lips. Jyn’s traitor tongue curves, and says, “Yes, highness,” instead. Habits. She lifts a hand to the crystal, and clutches it tight. The cuts on her fingers from the rose sting against the stone. “If you so wish.”

Princess Shara rolls her letters up, and sets them in a basket at her feet. Her lips purse. “I know I offered you tea, but I think—Will you take wine, Lady Erso?”

Her hands tremble. “Yes, please. I’ll—”

“You stay,” says Princess Shara, and stands, sweeping her filmy gown back into place. It bares her belly, the gown—two strips of cloth come over her shoulders, criss-crossing across her collar to cover her breasts and then crossing back over the small of her spine, flowing into long, trailing strands of silk over her feet. She moves without hesitation, baring her belly, her back, so much skin—it’s improper. Jyn can’t help stealing a glance at it as the princess pours wine, collects the glasses in one hand. There are stretch-marks on her belly from pregnancy. From the bastard, Jyn remembers. The one fathered by Dameron. Princess Shara offers the glass, and then takes a sip from her own.

“How often do they beat you?” Princess Shara says.

Jyn holds her breath. In, two, three. Out, two three. “I’m sorry, your highness. I don’t understand.”

Outside, a child laughs in the gardens of the Maidenvault. One of the young ones, Jyn thinks, from a visiting family. A Wren, maybe. A Kyrell. It’s bright, piercing. It makes her throat hurt.

“I’ve been trying to think of a means to speak with you in private, Lady Erso.” Princess Shara swirls the wine in her glass, leans back in her seat and considers. There’s a bold, sharp look to her eye, something close to cleverness. Not sly, not truly. Just—clever. Like a fox. “You play the beaten dog for them very well. I wasn’t sure, until today, that it was truly an act.”

Jyn does not speak. She holds tight to her crystal, and looks into her glass.

“May I?”

She blinks. Princess Shara has one hand held out, waiting with the air of someone who is not used to being denied. Jyn frowns, and then, carefully, transfers her wine glass to her unmarked hand, offers her fingers for the princess to inspect. The rose had dug quite deep, in her stupidity. Her head hurts. Princess Shara muses over her palm, over the marks on her fingers, before curling Jyn’s hand up into a fist and clasping it.

“I asked around about you,” the princess says. She does not look at Jyn. Instead, she draws a basket closer to her with a foot, and finds a little pot, settling it between her knees and uncapping it without looking. “Quietly. There are whispers that say you are beaten for others’ transgressions. That the Lady Ismaren delights in your scars.”

Jyn looks hard at the wall. She does not speak, for a moment. Carefully, she says, “Those in the North raise an insurrection in my name. The Emperor punishes me as he deems necessary.”

It’s a jar of honey. Princess Shara dabs it onto the divots in Jyn’s fingers without looking at her, and the sweetness of it chases the scent of roses out of her throat. Jyn shuts her eyes, and breathes.

“A Stark marrying a Hutt is a disgrace,” says Princess Shara. “It’s a humiliation of your line, and I think the Emperor will agree to it, if only to heap shame on your mother’s memory. You will be locked away in a castle in the middle of nowhere, made to bear children you have no wish to, until you die or are beaten within an inch of your life by that brute we saw today. Men of the North think of their wives as nothing more than broodmares.”

Mayhap it’s hearing her mother spoken of so casually—respectfully—but Jyn does a stupid thing. She bares her teeth, and she spits, “This cesspit of a city is not the North.”

She caps the honey pot, and finds a roll of bandages. Her lips twist as though Jyn’s said something funny. “No—no, I suppose it is not, to you.”

Jyn snaps her mouth shut, and looks back at the wall. She daren’t speak again.

“We’ve little time before Kes finds the maester,” says Princess Shara. “Dorne is not King’s Landing, Lady Erso. We do not share in the Emperor’s joys. Our land was beaten, but we remain proud, and our princes do not harm their wives. You must know you have few ways out, here. You would not have stayed so long otherwise, I think.”

Slowly—very, very slowly—Jyn lifts her gaze. Princess Shara’s mouth has twisted, sharp as a needle. She wraps the bandages around Jyn’s fingers with practiced ease, in and out and around, careful to keep from binding her hand up like an ancient mummy, but tight enough to trap the honey beneath the cloth all the same. Jyn wets her lips. “Forgive me, highness. What is it you wish of me?”

“If you stay here,” says Princess Shara, “you will be dead within five years. Perhaps three, or even one, if you are particularly unlucky. I have heard tell of how Lord Rotta became a widower, and it does not speak well of any woman’s chances, should she wed him.” She tucks the end of the bandage into the weave, and Jyn opens and closes her fist rather than show how fast her heart beats. “My love and I leave for Dorne at the end of the next sennight. I would beg you come with us, Lady Erso.”

A knot loosens, in her throat. It squeezes tight again. “It would not work,” Jyn says, and she whispers in spite of herself, her voice trembling, please, please, please— “The Emperor—he would raze Dorne to have me back, I could not—”

“Our ships are faster than yours,” says Princess Shara, She clasps Jyn’s bandaged hand. “You would be wed to one of my brothers before he could catch us. You would be free. You would be safe. No man of Dorne would dare treat you as they treat you here. To raise a hand to a princess is to lose it. You would be safe, little one.”

“But,” Jyn starts, and then bites her tongue. She looks at Princess Shara, and weighs it, carefully, shoves her panic and her elation and her excitement and her confusion all into a box and lays the options out in front of her, one by one. “What would Dorne gain?”

“A triumph over the Emperor,” says Princess Shara. “A princess of the Stark line, which we have always well respected.” Her lips press tight. Then she says, “And I do not—I would not see the last Stark die, Lady Erso.”

It’s a trap. That’s what her first thought is. A trap, laid by the princess of Dorne for some kind of cruel trick. She’ll tell the Emperor when I agree. They’ll beat me. But she’s been beaten before. She no longer has fear of it, not truly. If I agree, and we fail, then—then she’ll be dead, or swimming for her life, or fleeing, the way she always dreamed she could, tearing off her fancy clothes and melting into the sea of smallfolk in King’s Landing, making her way away from all this. From the North, from the Empire, her father, all of it. To Essos, or some even more distant land, changing her name, learning a new tongue, becoming someone different. She wraps her hand more firmly around the kyber crystal. If they take her to Dorne, she could flee all over again. Steal a horse and run. There are nomads in the desert who would take on a servant, surely.

Mama. What would you do?

Her mother would fight. Her mother had fought. Krennic still lives. The Emperor still lives. Her father—

Her eyes burn. No. Papa can’t help me. Perhaps he never could.

Tall and cold and strong.

“I heard tell you have three brothers,” says Jyn, very soft. Outside, there are voices. Dameron. Another. The maester. And more. Ser Garoche’s. Ser Deez. Others in the Red Guard. She can hear them at the end of the hall. “Which—”

Princess Shara squeezes her hand. “The youngest,” she says. “Cassian. The other two—they would not return to Sunspear in time.”

“Is he a bastard?”

Shara shakes her head.

Jyn weighs that, carefully. Then she draws her hand out of Princess Shara’s, and lifts her kyber crystal over her head. It aches, to take it off. She can’t be caught with it, when the Emperor calls her into court. She presses it into Princess Shara’s hand, bloody, still, from the pricks of the rosethorns.

“Send that ahead,” she says. “As—as an engagement gift.”

Princess Shara closes her hand tight around the crystal, and slips it into her pocket.

The Red Guard bursts in before she can reply.