arc i. jon
so long we marvelled at the spotlight
and never thought about the price we pay
You’re the best.
This isn’t something anyone’s told you, but something that you know anyway- deep down, in the hard, hot ball sitting under your breastbone, a truth that sings like the sweep of a sword across another man’s neck. It isn’t even clear what you’re the best at: swords? Music? Ruling? You’re the bastard son of the king of Westeros, who’s so bad at dancing that you’d rather die than take lessons, and the idea that you’re better than Aegon at anything is laughable.
Your father- he’s not a cruel man, not by the standards of most, but he’s... uncaring. Single-minded. It’s not hatred that you feel for him. It’s not love, either, and if you ever told anyone that you’d be drawn and quartered before you could finish your sentence, because Rhaegar Targaryen is beloved by his subjects while you- you, the bastard son, you, the dark-haired, over-foreign prince- you’re barely tolerated.
Your father doesn’t love you, either, so you don’t feel much guilt for not loving him back. But his cruelty? That, of everything, is something you can’t forgive. He’s not often cruel, but when he gets a drink in his hands, when the polished veneer of royalty and blasé, carefully-constructed civility is stripped away by ale’s bitterness- well, there’s a Rhaegar that loathes you with every fiber of his being.
I’ve given you everything, he spits, a dragon unfurling from the corners of his eyes and the tips of his jaws, heat-haze rising along with the blood in his cheeks. I’ve given you everything, boy- a name, a sword, an army- what more d’you need, you stupid, foolish, ungrateful bastard?
I’ve given you everything you have, sneers Rhaegar, and you turn your head, you swallow, you don’t say a single fucking thing.
You’re a bastard. Words aren’t your inheritance. Nothing’s your inheritance. But there’s thoughts there, rising under your skin like lava bursting out of stone, like broken bone pushing out of skin, pale and terrifying and sickening. Thoughts that twist and tremble and settle, finally, along your chest, beating in time to your heartbeat.
You’ve given me nothing, you think, fifteen, delirious with rage and something too hot to call hatred.
It’s the truth. Your mother gave you your name, the last words she managed before bleeding out in Dorne. Your father’s friend, Jon Connington, gave you your first sword. He’d looked disgusted the entire five minutes he’d spent handing it to you, right up until you disarmed Aegon with a careless twist of the sword and dislocated your wrist at the same time. You’d looked up, eyes stinging from the pain, straight at him, and you remember the look on his face even now- he hadn’t looked happier- you hadn’t known what to call the peculiar look in his eyes- but you know the disgust was gone.
The army, the crown, the continent that’s been at war ever since Rhaegar Targaryen stole away Lyanna Stark?
You take the rest.
You’re ten, fifteen, twenty- sticky hands, sour looks, awkwardness scabbed over with bitterness and grief. You can count the kindnesses of others on the ridges of one hand. The cook, who’d given you two more sweetcakes than permitted. The lord who’d come to court and given all three of you, Aegon and Rhaenys and you, books, each the same worth and value. Jon Connington, who hates you and glares at you and avoids you like the plague; who still, for some reason, thinks that he owes your mother a debt for naming her son after him.
You’re sixteen when you walk into your first battle.
You’re sixteen when you walk out.
The years after that are a blur. Blood, mud, the screams of dying horses- your sword gets sharper, then you get quicker, and then it’s all a mixture of luck and screaming, vicious defiance. You don’t die. You’re not surprised, but everyone else is. Anybody with two coppers to rub together would’ve given up by now, would’ve rolled over and died, because what worth’s a life spent scrabbling and wrestling over wars where only the kings can be happy at the end of it?
You don’t have two coppers, though. All you have is the copper in your mouth, blood slick over your tongue. The blood on your sword. The screaming, shrieking thing in your chest: you’re the best, you’re the best, you’re the best.
When you’re twenty, you’re thrown into another battle.
It isn’t a surprise. You’ve been doing this for four years, almost five; you know how to fight. You know how to drag victory out of exhaustion, like scarves from a magician’s sleeves. You know how to be indefatigable.
But this time is different.
You’re standing on a nearby bluff, and your horse is shifting uneasily beneath your feet- and since when have you had a horse? You, the ungrateful, disgraceful bastard prince?- and you look up- and there, there, you see a man in black armor, in red armor, standing in the river and scything his way through the Northerners.
The world is still. You’re staring, and you shouldn’t be staring, because a moment’s inattention can get you killed, and you don’t want to die- but gods, you can’t look away.
So you watch as men get killed, and your father kills them, and finally- finally- he comes to the commander of the Northern forces, the man who’s been more of a pest than even an annoyance, so far from a concern that both Rhaegar and Aegon are at the battlefield, king and heir, utterly confident in their triumph.
Blue and red armor, against black and red. Your hand clenches down on the sword. That’s what you remember, months and months later, when you think back on this day: the bruises on your palms, from clutching your hilt too tight. The sunlight shining down, too bright and reflecting off the back of your piece-meal armor. The warm, dank scent of the horse underneath you. You don’t look away when Rhaegar bears down on Edmure Tully, and you don’t flinch when Tully- the fucking fishy bastard that he is- spears his sword straight upwards, ripping through the black and red armor like tissue.
It’s a deathblow.
There’s a long, breathless moment- you’re still, the entire world’s gone frozen and colorless, narrowed down to the red that’s dribbling out from around the sword stuck through your father’s chest.
Then the world explodes.
One breath, two, three- you scream, you lunge, you move like a battering ram. When night falls and you return to the camp, you're called over to the king’s tent. You burst inside, moving too quickly, too harshly for these fat men and their golden plates. There’s still blood grooved into your armor, half of which you’d stolen off of Northern soldiers because theirs is better quality; half of which you’d kept of the standard issue because you don’t want to risk the friendly fire. You probably look like a lost, idiot footsoldier with better aim than brains.
But that’s not all you are.
So you clench your jaw and straighten your spine and hold, firm, eyes steady and unyielding.
“The King is dead,” says one of the lords. He looks afraid.
You look to the left instead of maintaining eye contact with the speaker, because you can’t be certain that you’ll be able to maintain your neutrality if you continue looking at him and his stupid, quivering jowls. This is what you see: a dark-haired grim man wearing a dark, long coat and a turban more ornate than your father’s armor- what the fuck? you think, uncharitably- and a silver-haired grim man who seems to see straight through your paltry attempt at politeness and finds it amusing.
“I saw,” you acknowledge shortly. “I was there.”
Another long, uncomfortable pause.
Then the silver-haired man leans back in his chair, eyes sharp on you. “Your brother,” he says, deliberately, “almost drowned. The doctors are working on helping him.”
Almost drowned isn’t dead. You remind yourself of that seven times, repeating it over and over in your head, before you even try to speak.
“Why am I here?”
The first speaker shuffles the papers on his desk. “We need a leader.”
And your leader is me?
You look at these men, three men who have more power in their pens than you’ve had your entire life, and you bare your teeth. You’re the best. It aches in your chest, the same hole that had been cut open in your father, the same ball that’s been coiling in on itself for twenty long, long years.
“He’s not dead,” you say quietly.
The dark-haired man lifts his head. “Not yet,” he agrees.
Oh, you think.
“I want to see him,” you say aloud.
“Very well,” says the first man, looking slightly relieved at this first sign of normalcy in the conversation. “He’s still in his old tent, Prince Jon-”
“I’m no prince,” you spit out, whirling around to flee with as much of your dignity intact as possible.
But not before you catch the expression on the silver-haired man’s face. He looks amused, more than before, and slightly intrigued. As if he’s wondering if you have it in you to poison Aegon while he’s struggling for life.
You don’t, is what you’d tell him, if you were more talkative, if you saw the sense in being more talkative. You won’t poison Aegon. You won’t kill your brother. You can’t imagine it in the first place, even though you hate him, even though he’s had everything you’ve ever wanted and never once been grateful for any of it.
A perfunctory pause, then an even more perfunctory bow, and you stride out of the tent, pick your way to the mud-splattered tent of your half-brother.
It’s cool when you enter. You curl your hand over Aegon’s jaw, skim it down to cup his shoulder, press it against his ribs. If you were a true dragon, you could burn the water out of his lungs and he’d live again. If you were a true dragon you wouldn’t be a forgotten, erased prince of the Targaryen dynasty.
Slowly, you drop into the seat besides his bed.
You reach up and undo the buckles of your armor, shed it like an old skin. When you run your fingers over your undershirt, it doesn’t come away red. There’s no blood. It’s dirty, more brown than the white it started out; but you’re not wounded. Your chest aches like someone’s stabbed you and you don’t know why. Your skin is too hot. You want to tear into Aegon’s calm, sleeping face and drag him back to the land of the living. Your chest aches.
He is dead. He is not dead, not yet, but you know- down deep- that it is only a matter of time. The stillness- the silence- you reach for Aegon’s fingers and bend over it, press them, stiff and cold, to your chest, where you thought a bruise had formed.
You do not weep.
Hours later- or minutes, you’re not certain- a breeze rustles through the room. There’s a faint clatter above you, and you look up. There, hanging over the bed like a toy over a child’s cradle, is your father’s crown.
It shines, black and red, like stone and fire and the pulse of the earth beneath your feet. Your mouth is dry. You want- but, no, that isn’t the word for the baying, blazing thing in your chest, in your throat, in your gut. This is something set afire in your bones. When your fingers brush over the cold metal, when they come away stained with blood- your father’s blood, king’s blood- the knot coalesces in your belly. This is your life. Twenty years of disdain and blood and hate, and you’re standing in your brother’s tent with your father’s crown in your hands. This is your life. This is the purpose of your life.
Your hand seizes over it, bruises from the morning layered over the bruises from battle layered over bruises from this metal circle.
Your hands don’t shake when you put the crown on your head.
The next armor you wear is black, like the night around you, and red, like the stars in the sky, like the pyres of fallen soldiers, like the blood in your father’s chest.
It fits you perfectly.
Later, you learn that the three men in the tent were the highest lords of Westeros. Mace Tyrell, the fat, fainting man from the Reach; Tywin Lannister, the silver-haired, amused Warden of the West; and Oberyn Martell, the dark-haired, grim-faced brother of Elia Martell.
Elia, whose son’s inheritance you’ve stolen. Elia, who’s never forgiven you for being the product of your father’s infidelity. Elia, who has an entire realm behind her, vicious and furious and desperate for rebellion.
(Here is what you know: they don’t want you alive. They want you biddable. The moment you speak your own words, you will die. The moment you get caught between them, these three men with three different needs, you will be the expendable piece.
Here is what you know: you’re not going to die.
Here is what you know: you’re the best.)
Here is what you do, when you want the crown, when you learn who those three men are: you wear your father’s stone and rubies crown and you go to the men you’d fought besides this morning. You know their names. You reach for their arms and you promise them nothing. All you do is ask.
Will you follow me?
And your heart is twisting, aching, shriveling in your chest. You are not a hopeful person by nature. You look into these men’s dark, half-dead eyes and you feel despair rise up alongside their silence.
Here is the sound three lords of Westeros wake to, in the middle of the night: ten hundred score voices, soldiers screaming with fervor enough to raise the dead. The clamor reaches inside your body, eddies like a storm around your ears, fills your poor, thin, starving heart until it’s bursting with an emotion too raw to call pride.
Perhaps it is love. It’s not like you know enough of it to name it.
Your general- one of the many who’s been rapidly promoted over the past few days, largely due to the majority of officers having died at the Trident or scuttered off when it’s made abundantly clear that the Tyrells and Lannisters and Martells aren’t having any of your upstart feckish rebellion- stumbles into your tent one morning, mud still striped down one side of his armor, a loose-fitted officer’s coat thrown over it.
“They’re gone,” he tells you, eyes meeting yours with the boldness of a man who doesn’t know it to be bold. “The lords. And- er- there’s a raven from King’s Landing. Ser. I mean- Lord.”
King, you think, but- not yet. That’s the truth of it. All you have now is your father’s crown. His kingdom, his throne, the continent that his ancestors had laid claim to with fire and blood- that still awaits you. You are many things, but king is not one of them. Not yet.
“Read it to me,” you say. Then, after a moment’s consideration, you amend: “Just tell me what they want.”
The man flushes, uncomfortably, before he opens the scroll he has clutched and crumpled in one fist. There’s a streak of mud on it that shouldn’t be there, but you both ignore it.
He scans the letter, once, then twice, and only then does he look up.
He’s gone white.
“They’re callin’ you a traitor,” he says slowly, fear burgeoning in his eyes. “They’re askin’ for you’ head. M’lord- Lannister’s are callin’ their banners and Martell’s demandin’ the crown- they’re-”
You stand. This is quicker than you suspected, but- this is a battlefield that you know. This is not new territory. You breathe in, and the air is sweet in your lungs.
“You know your letters?” you ask the man, who nods, still looking terrified.
“Then you’ll write me some,” you say.
This is what they forget about you, all of them, father and brother and lords. You are the bastard son of Rhaegar Targaryen, and the erased, deliberately forgotten prince of his dynasty. You hate speaking to people and you love long, moonlit rides along the beaches of King’s Landing and there has always been something quicksilver and terrifying and barely-leashed in your muscles.
That is not a surprise to anyone.
No, the surprise is that these traits don’t descend from your father’s side.
This is what they all forget about you: you are only half Targaryen.
Three black-winged ravens fly away from the Trident, a fortnight after Rhaegar dies.
Two south, one north.
Two to war.
One to peace.
I wish to see you, writes Ned Stark. Your eyes skim over the ink, the even spacing of the black, blocky script, and then you pass the letter over to the lieutenant in front of you. This one’s a lanky, buck-toothed man with a scarce handful of years more than you. His hair’s the same color as his skin, halfway between red and orange. When he reads it out, it’s a city drawl, all loose lisp and rolled consonants. It amuses you, to think of Ned Stark in his white and grey glory with a Flea Bottom accent. Peace is not out of our reach. I’ve known it, in my time, though I was younger then than you are now- but peace is not impossible.
Let us meet, Jon.
You want to laugh. You want to claw yourself out of your skin, too, because you don’t know what to do with peace. You’ve never had it in your life. You can’t fathom a man who wants it so badly, who’s still gone to war for his family’s sake, who’s never stopped fighting it. You cannot understand Ned Stark.
When you meet his eyes, you almost jump.
(He’s tall, lean, shadowed and hollowed like someone’s carved the unimportant parts of his body out with a rusty knife. He walks like the blood is still dripping out of his skin, each step agonizing; he walks like he doesn’t know what else he can do. Your eyes are the same color. Your eyes- you’ve never seen pain like that in another’s before.)
You don’t understand him.
Never before have you seen anyone look so like you.
This is what you leave the room with, weeks and endless negotiations later: a peace treaty, five thousand men, and a wife. You’re grateful for the peace treaty, you’re ecstatic about the soldiers, and you couldn’t care less about the wife. Marriage has never been in your plans for the future- not as the bastard prince, not when the best you could’ve hoped for was to lay with a two-bit whore in the army’s kitchens and pray not to get a bastard out of it- and right now?
You don’t understand Ned Stark.
You don’t have anything. You have twenty thousand men’s love, and your uncle’s gifts, and your mother’s long, solemn face, and your father’s crown. You don’t have a throne. You don’t have victory in the grip of one palm. All you have is your sword hilt.
A thousand battles more to go, all of which could be your last.
What idiot would betroth his eldest daughter to you?
But that doesn’t matter. You don’t have the time to puzzle through Ned Stark’s strange, Northern thoughts and motivations. Right now, your wife- she’s a nebulous, distant concept. You shove the thought away before it can prick you. You pray that it stays that way.
It does, until it doesn’t.
You don’t think about it for another fortnight. You don’t think about it at all, not until you hear that she’s arriving- then, you make your way over to the courtyard where her caravan’s being received, making sure to appear only distantly intrigued- and then, then you see her.
Not entirely, of course. The Northerners veil their women, and she is no different. But amidst the swirl of white, fluttering cloth, you can make the figure out: slim, tall, perhaps even of a height with you. Her hair is dark, of the fringes visible beneath the thick silk over her scalp, and her skin just a few shades lighter- but your eyes meet when she alights from her wheelhouse.
They are not differently colored. Brown, dark and as normal as yours, as any other you’ve ever seen. Not green, not blue, not your father’s exotic lilac- just brown, so brown they might as well have been black.
But your eyes meet hers.
There is a snap in your spine. Something cracking, giving way, because this woman- Sansa, that’s her name, Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Ned Stark- looks at you with the boldness of a woman who knows full well what she’s courting. This woman is beautiful. You don’t know anything about her, know only that you come from two worlds that could not be more separate- and you know that she is beautiful.
She is beautiful, and she is to be your wife.
arc ii. sansa
there’s nothing that i’d take back,
but it’s hard to say there’s nothing i regret
You are trembling.
You are grateful, stupidly, desperately grateful for the veils you wear and the shield they provide. No one can be certain if the veils are shaking because of anger or fear or excitement or- most likely- simple breathing. You are surrounded by your father’s men, as safe as you’ve ever been in your life, more unsafe than you’d ever though you would be- and you are not shaking from excitement.
You are not shaking from fear.
You are not shaking from anger.
One of those, you think, nails digging into the crisp, starched cloth covering your elbow, is not a lie.
This is how you learn that your father has broken your decade-long-betrothal to Harry Hardyng: you’re at breakfast with your entire family, and your mother is reading the letters the maester delivered overnight, and she tips over her goblet, spilling red juice all over your new dress.
You shriek and try to dab at the red stain, shocked and horrified, before you finally look up.
That’s when you see her face.
Your mother is staring at you, and there are tears standing out in her eyes. Never before has she looked so grieved, not even when news of her father’s death came. There’s a long silence. Then, still wordless, your mother leaves.
Robb picks up the discarded letter carefully, pale and strained under the mask he’s put up for Rickon’s sake. Just a minute earlier, you’d been eating porridge- the kind that could only come about in a years’ long summer, with the season’s mistimed just a little, the grain too sweet for bread. You feel it churn in your stomach and you press your hands to the table, sticky-sweet from the juice. For a heartbeat you wish fiercely, so fiercely that it aches in your gut and makes your skin feel too tight for your bones- that your father is well, of sound mind and body, that he’s alive and not betrayed by the cousin that you’ve only ever heard of in vague, confused terms.
But then Robb looks up, and he doesn’t look at anyone else. His eyes spear straight through you. It’s a terrible sort of look: you know it, and that’s why you flinch. It’s the same look you’d given, that everyone’d given, to Beth, when she’d been betrothed to a miller’s son but it hadn’t been announced yet.
Pity. Shock. Mockery, too, just a little.
“Robb,” you say.
He doesn’t look away. But when he speaks, it’s gentle, and that’s when you know this news is, truly, terrible. More than anything that happened to Beth. Robb is righteous and steady and he loves things like a fire loves air: like he can’t exist without it, like he’s intertwined with the land and its bones. Gentleness is not bred within him.
“Sansa,” he says. “Perhaps you ought to sit down.”
This is what you know: you are perfect.
The perfect daughter. The perfect sister. You’ve all the tools to be the perfect wife, and soon after that you’ll be the perfect mother, and that is your life: four roles, woven into one another, inextricable. Let Robb have his greatness and his fire-love. You are content with what you have. Let Arya buck against conventions, throw herself against the world until either she breaks it or herself- you have the world already, jeweled and shining in your palm.
In the blink of one eye, in the fall of one goblet, it’s all stripped from you.
(This is what you know: your sister loves you. Your mother loves you. Your father loves you.)
(This is what you know: your father sells you to his nephew for peace, and your sister looks at your misfortune and thinks it deserved, and your mother has not looked you in the eye for a fortnight.)
(This is what you know, now, after nights of weeping and careful silence during the day: let them strip you of your dignity. Let them strip you of your family. Let them strip you of your name. You are more than that.)
(This is what you are: Sansa Stark.
You have lost everything.
You have lost everything, and yet you have your pride.)
When you arrive at Riverrun, you wear white.
You never used to wear white. It’s mourning colors, for all that they’re Stark colors as well; but your mother had always refused to dress her children in funeral clothes unless it was absolutely mandated- the habit continued with you. Now, however, you refuse to wear the red that you love so deeply- it’s his colors, and you’d rather die than style yourself his in any fashion.
You stand before your father, bedecked in gossamer and lace and silk, glass thick and shining in your hair.
“This is necessary,” he whispers, old, face crumpled in lines deeper than the letter you’ve balled up and unfolded for the fortnight it took you to leave Winterfell.
He reaches out to cup your shoulder.
You don’t feel it. You are not the girl he left behind- a scarce month previous- in Winterfell. You’ve grown, in these weeks, grown cold and harsh, the first heartbreak you’ve ever faced also the last you’ll ever allow yourself. You’ve shrouded yourself in silence. You’ve swallowed this injustice and the paltry, pale attempts at making at palatable without a grimace every morning. By the end of it, you’d frightened even Arya.
“Of course,” you say. Then, because you have your pride, because they have stripped you of your choices but have not managed to take away your ability to damage their dignity- you say, “I wish to speak to him before we wed.”
“Sansa,” says Robb, behind you, sharp.
He’s been waiting for this rebellion for a fortnight. He’s put guards by your windows and forced Arya to sleep beside you and stolen every chance you might have ever had to run away; he’s been deliberately provocative, for hours on end, nudging and shoving you and going steadily whiter as you don’t react.
He’s been spoiling for a fight, and you won’t give him the satisfaction of one.
“That isn’t possible,” says your father quietly.
“Sansa,” says Robb, again, hands coming down on your shoulders, heavy and warm. “You know how unseemly-”
How unseemly is it to wed me to a man whose father was a blasphemer and an oathbreaker? For thousands of years, we’ve held the peace. And now Rhaegar cuts down the godswoods, and you wish for me- me!- to wed his son.
You don’t look at him. You don’t look at your father.
You say, “I will speak to him, or you will have to drag me to the altar with tied hands and a gag.”
His hands peel away. Out of the corner of your eye, you think he looks stricken. But you are beyond caring. Where was this stricken, splintered fury when your father sold you?
(You’ve heard the tales. Oh, your father tried- tries- to shield all of you from it, but there’s only so much one man can do. You grow up hearing the stories of Rhaegar Targaryen stealing Lyanna Stark away- the stormy night, the sunny morning, the innocent preethi that was corrupted and tarnished until it didn’t look like love at all.
Your father went to war for his sister. The world’s been at war ever since.
There are other whispers that you’ve heard, ones that were even quieter than the other stories- murmurs softer than a cat’s breath- that Lyanna Stark wasn’t the only reason the North went to war. That there had been a war brewing on the horizon ever since the last dragon died. That the Targaryens had stolen a hundred other women a thousand other times and justice hadn’t ever been meted out for them.
You never thought you’d be one of those women.)
You lift your chin. You don’t say another word.
The next morning, you meet him.
He’s so like your father. You can only see him through the veils, the ones that you wear and the cloths that have been strung up around you. But what you see of him reveals a man so similar to your father that you want to retch.
Tell me that my daughters will never have to fear what I am fearing.
“Your Majesty,” you say quietly.
“I asked to meet you before we wed because-” you breathe, slowly, and then straighten. “Because I will not wed you without two things.”
“I will not force you to wed me,” he says stiffly.
You feel your lips twist in a sneer. This, this man’s insistence that this is your choice, when it is anything but- you want to break his face open like a thousand glass shards. You ignore him instead.
“I will not live in a castle without a weirwood,” you say levelly. “That is my first request.”
“And the second?”
“My religion is my own. You will not try to erase that from me. You will not try to turn me from it.”
“I follow the Seven,” he says, sounding confused.
Doesn’t everyone? he seems to ask.
“And I do not,” you say, calm and quiet as an arrow sailing through the night sky. “I am of the North. The only gods I keep are the faceless ones in the weirwood trees.”
This is your only faith: the silence in the godswood, the weighted peace that’s always settled the jagged pieces of your heart. The songs that whistle through the leaves, high and chill wind. The tears that drip down old trees, lines carved into living wood like the worry in your father’s face.
You will not let it be taken from you.
Not for all the peace in the world.
You wed him silently, a sennight later, wearing a gown of the brightest white that you’ve ever seen. Mourning, you think, and do not weep at all, though your mother isn’t beside you, though there are none of your people besides your father and your brother to hold witness.
The marriage is at least nominally a Northern affair.
And the weddings in the North don’t need anyone to speak- there’s only the officiator, who’s pouring the butter and rice and grain into the fire, chanting the oldest, purest songs- and you’re veiled again, as always; but you’re seated a little too close to the fire. The homa, which is a fire that lights up the sky and licks upwards, higher and higher the more the officiator pours, spiraling to greater heights alongside his voice. The smoke stings your eyes and the heat is so fierce that you want to flinch.
You would flinch, but he is beside you.
Jon is beside you.
He wears a veil himself- his is made of flowers, large, pale blossoms that spill down his back and front, not your finely woven netting. His clothes are black and red. He looks like your father, but paler and smaller and colder.
You hate him.
There is only one time that you touch: when the officiator takes the golden ring that is Jon’s first gift to you- as is proper- and drops it into the wide-rimmed, milk-filled cup, and both of you must try to find it. You know that there are people who are watching- they’ll account for the person who finds it, for the time you’ve spent trying to find it, for the stars in the sky, and they’ll give you a jathaka for it- a jathaka of the children you’ll have, of the state of your marriage in ten, twenty years, of your future besides him- and you should be wrestling for it with him; those are the best marriages, you’ve been told, the ones where you both fight for the ring, almost tip over the cup, but one finds it out quicker than the other through luck and holds it up, hands shining, metal glittering.
It’s the stuff you’ve dreamed of for years. But now, faced with the reality- your wrist brushes his, once, and you go slack. You don’t care about the stupid gold ring. You want this farce over as quickly as possible.
Jon finds it after a minute’s rooting around. You let it slide onto one thin finger and don’t move for the rest of the evening.
(There’s a moment- when you’re eating dinner- and you’re supposed to share a plate, of course you are; you are newly wed, you must- but you don’t. You don’t turn towards Jon, and you don’t move, and it’s awkward and terrible and your wedding blazes in your chest like a thousand bruises spread along your spine.
He gets up halfway through and you think yes, perhaps it’s over, now-
But Jon only goes to the soldiers away from you, men with large eyes and hunger caught in their teeth like metal in a horse’s mouth, men who carry the title of small because they’ve never been given another choice- and he beckons them over to the feast that your family’s laid out of their own gold.
Sourness spreads over your tongue.)
When he comes to your bed, neither of you move. You are wearing red, because you don’t want to name yourself his, but this is your favorite gown, the one that’s most comfortable, the one that’s most flattering, and you've given enough to him this past day- and your ladies told you to take off the veil before Jon entered- but you don’t. You don’t. You sit there, silently, and when he enters, you still don’t move.
Your finger is still sticky, is still burning, from his touch.
He touches your hand, and you don’t breathe. You cannot breathe. After a long time- so long that you feel dizzy with all the fear and rage and hurt and airlessness swirling in your chest- he turns away, the bed shifting with his weight, and before you can react beyond a single, shallow inhale, he’s pinched out the candles. Then he lays down.
Slowly, testing, still breathless, you ease backwards, until you’re sleeping on the same bed as Jon Targaryen.
You sleep, the two of you, like that. One veiled, the other armed, spines a careful half-foot apart, breaths measured as if you’re asleep for all that both of you know the other’s not. Exhaustion drags, gritty and scraping, over your nerves, and between one breath and the other-
When you wake the next morning, he’s gone.
(So- and this is what frightens you, beyond everything else- is your veil.)
The south aches in your gut. The air is too thick. The streets are too wide. You want people with burrs in their voices and trees with songs spilling from their leaves. This is what you get instead: a spindly, shadowy sapling, splinted to a nearby pine, trunk so slender you could span it with one single palm.
“Your weirwood, my Queen,” says one of the countless, nameless ladies that your husband’s foisted off on you.
There’s mockery there, you think; but then you realize that there isn’t knowledge enough for them to mock you. What knowledge do these southron girls have of the majesty of Northern godswoods? All the trees were- chopped down, is the phrase in the common vernacular- but in the Old Tongue, there’s another: kadadidu, which means something between cutting down trees and destroying sacred wood. It’s a word that came into being only when the tales of the southron godswood burnings reached the North. It means sacrilege. It means faithless.
It means betrayal.
You wonder how much it must have cost Jon Targaryen, whose father cut down the trees his mother had once worshipped, to plant this small sapling for you.
You smile, and lean down, and caress the small red leaves.
Your mother is not there to see you marry him. This is not because she isn’t invited, though that’s what everyone seems to think- your family paid for the wedding with their own gold, that’s what effects the guest list ultimately- and it suits you to keep them thinking that way.
Here is the truth: your mother has not looked at you ever since she read that letter.
Here is another truth: you would rather people think your husband cruel than your mother disapproving.
Here is one last truth: there is a small vial, hidden under a hundred of your thick, flowing veils. It was pressed into your fingers by your mother under the cover of dark, in the godswood that you’d once upon a time been afraid of.
(Now you fear nothing, nothing but the shadows in men’s hearts.)
Wrapped around the vial is a letter. Inside of the vial?
That, that is a secret.
Here’s another mystery, one that your husband’s people will never solve: your brother sits on the throne of the North, safe in Winterfell. Your sister is fighting and fighting to be on a battlefield, no matter the enemy on the other side, no matter the color of the armor she wears. Your other brother is learning to ride horses under your mother’s close supervision. You are in the south, sequestered, silenced, smothered.
But your mother has birthed five children.
(There is a letter in your chests, under a hundred veils, and it is written in your hand.
Robb had ensured you could not run to the best of his ability. That is the important phrase: the best of his ability. One night, cold and dry, hidden in the godswood, your mother had sworn she’d smuggle out a letter. You’d returned to your rooms, you sat, and you wrote it, and you bled out your rage and your grief in stark ink, and then- that morning- you’d held it in your fist, so tight you had red crescents on your palms for weeks afterwards, and you hadn’t let go.
This is the truth: you could’ve sent that letter to your other brother. You could have sent it to Bran. You could have run, far and long, until your hair turned to the dark of the sky above you and your heart turned to the dirt beneath your soles. This is the truth: you chose to stay.
This is the truth: you chose this, for all that you had no choice.)
arc iii. jon
my memories full of black and blue,
i should have cut my losses long before i knew you
Slowly, so slowly it would anger you, if you thought to dwell on it at all- you get to know her.
Sansa loves to talk, is the first thing you find out. Once you get past her anger and her suspicion, she doesn’t stop talking. You know everything about her day, from the bird’s wing she spent the morning splinting to the newest poem she uncovered in the library to the silks she’s importing from Essos. It would irritate you in another person- it has irritated you in others, how much they talk without managing anything of substance- but with Sansa?
Perhaps your fascination stems from your life; you’ve been on the battlefield for so long. You’ve never had a person in your life to marvel at the beauty of said life; you hadn’t thought there could be people like that. Not when you’ve held on to life with both hands and teeth and all the muscles in your legs, not when you’ve fought so hard to keep on living- but there are people, like this strange, peculiar wife that you have- who have spent their lives finding things to love in this world, instead of just fighting to stay on it.
You watch her in the godswood, in the castles; she is beautiful, even in the dankest, dirtiest of places. It is as if she brings the light with her.
When she takes you to the godswood in Raventree Hall- fucking hells, but you’ve never seen anyone look so reverent- there is a limn to her skin, a glow to her hair, as if the very gods have touched her, blessed her. Even in the shadow of the largest, whitest corpse of a tree that you’ve ever seen, she is brilliant.
Your father had spared the Blackwoods this tree in his fervent desire to rid the south of the old gods, because the tree was already dead.
Slowly, you trace one hand over the knots on the rough bark. White spreads over your fingertips like chalk. In another world, in another life, you would have thought this a god. You would have knelt here, and you would have-
wind, song-wind, cold and high in your ears; silence that erases all your fears, heavy in your chest; mud beneath your knees and calm, calm, calm in your heart
-you could have been content.
The possibility aches in your chest like a bruise.
A few days later, Sansa calls you to her rooms.
She is wearing some Northern-fashioned gown, of small jewels layered over one another until her chest is glittering as if she’s wearing some plate. It’s so different from the southron fashions, which mostly consist of large jewels, set against darker, shaded cloths or the brightest colors possible.
Slowly, Sansa unrolls a scroll.
It’s large, large enough to be a tapestry, and it has black ink spilling over it in sharp, stark lines. Sansa looks up at you, then looks away as if she’s done something terrible. As if she’s ashamed of- this.
Anger lights up the tips of your fingers, still white-stained.
“What is this?”
“My- King,” she says softly. “A gift. For your nameday. My ladies said it was your nameday a sennight previous.”
“A word,” you say.
“Yes. Do you not like it?”
“Are you mocking me?” you ask sharply. Sansa blinks as if she doesn’t understand your question, and you feel the abrupt, juddering desire to flee. Shame and hot anger mix in your throat. “I asked you a question,” you say instead of moving, because your legs feel leaden, bolted to the stone.
“I don’t understand,” says Sansa. “What question?”
“What is this?” you grit out.
“A- word. A name.” Sansa’s fingers tighten into her palms, knuckles bleaching of color.
You exhale roughly. “Whose?”
Sansa’s head snaps up. She looks- she looks like a hawk, who’s heard some suspicious sound. She looks lovelier than that. “Yours,” she says.
Not ashamed, you think, wondering. Apprehensive.
Slowly- you move forwards, stumbling, until you can touch the white material. Your hands hover over the black lines- you think you can feel the coolness of the ink sunk into the parchment- but you pull back before you can mar the perfectly even strokes.
You don’t look up when you speak.
“I never learned to read,” you confess. “Nor to write. There was so little time on the battlefield... there were more important things. Always, more important things.”
You make the mistake of looking up. Sansa looks surprised, and a little horrified. You don’t know if it’s for your ignorance or for her gaffe. To your own faint surprise, the distinction matters. Then she reaches for the paper, pulling it from under your hand, as if to hide it away; and you cannot stay silent.
“Read it out,” you say abruptly.
She recoils. “I- I can’t-”
How to make her understand? You are twenty years old, and you can count other’s kindnesses on one hand. You are twenty years old, and this is the finest gift anyone has ever given you. You are hungry, so desperately ravenous, for one more. To hear your name from your wife, who rightfully loathes you but is kind enough to give you the best gift you have ever been given.
How do you tell a woman with a river what it feels like to die of thirst?
“Please,” you say, and you don’t know what she sees in your face- the brightness in your eyes, the desire that you can scarcely keep contained, the want that screams and shrieks in your chest- but Sansa accepts.
She is still pale, and looks so hesitant; but she does it.
“Jon,” she whispers, and it sounds like a prayer to you. Like a benediction. Like someone’s ripped your heart out of your chest and you are reaching, straining, fighting, to see what stains are being stripped of it. “Of House Targaryen.”
You kiss her.
(That first night, in that bed- she’d been so still, so stern; she hadn’t trembled even though she must have been so frightened. You’d decided then that you wouldn’t ever touch her again, not unless you knew her to be willing. Now, you love her like you love the spray of saltwater against your cheeks. Now, you can only hope she returns that love.)
It’s messy. You are not good at this, and neither is she, and your nose is just large enough to get in the way all the fucking time. But then she reaches up and cups your cheek in her thin, soft hand, and you feel cold metal between the bristles of your beard- the ring you’d given her, cold and gold and smooth as water-oil. And you don’t care about much of anything else.
It isn’t like a battle.
It’s goddamn better.
You arrive in King’s Landing with fanfare.
Jon Connington is there to greet you. So are the paupered lords of the Stormlands, wrested into submission by your father so many years ago; they’ve been waiting for their vengeance for years now, and they see it in your dark, dark eyes. Half the continent comes with your wedding, and you have another of eight realms because of your father’s mistakes. It doesn’t matter, not at all, that the moment you show yourself to be too Targaryen these men will turn their backs on you.
That is for tomorrow.
Today, you are a king.
Today, you are the last in a dynasty of three hundred years, tall and lean and starving with your power. Your father’s crown slides down your brows once, twice- then Sansa drags you away and fixes it with a few pins. Her fingers are gentle on your face, and it takes all your will not to push her against the stone wall and fuck her, right there, arousal already swirling in your belly. Today you are alive, against all odds, and you are triumphant against everyone’s predictions.
Never before have you felt incandescent with joy.
Here is something you should know, but don’t: the greatest joys are broken by the greatest griefs. This is why you don’t know this yet: you’ve never had a great joy before.
You are twenty years old, a king, a warrior.
You are a trusting, trusting fool.
“There was chatter amongst our spies this morning,” Connington remarks casually.
He’s usurped the position of Hand without any difficulty over the past few days. The two of you are the only ones left in the council room; he’s flipping through his papers like he’s trying to avoid your eyes. It makes something itch down your spine, across the back of your knee.
“A meeting,” he says blandly. “I wouldn’t have brought it to your attention- these meetings happen all the time, with those Northerners- but you might be interested in the people involved.”
Connington extends a hand, a paper that contains words you can’t read. But you remember how you’d made Sansa teach you to write her name- the sinuous curves of it, the strokes like a waterfall. You look down, and you read your first word, and it is your wife’s name.
“Where is this taking place?” you croak out.
Connington’s eyes are gleaming. He says, “They’ve grown bold with that peace treaty you signed. It’s been a task and a half keeping them pressed down.”
“Connington,” you say.
He doesn’t smile, but his eyes do. “Tonight. At the cove.”
You would know that hair no matter where you went. Black, and red, swirled together as the shine of your father’s armor. It is a moonless night, but you know this beach like you know your own sword. You see your wife embrace a man with familiarity that she’s never offered a scarce drop of to you, and there are bruises on your heart in the shapes of fingers. You do not want to breathe from the stabbing pain of it.
You do not wait to see if the spy is chased down.
You return to your home, to your rooms, and you try to breathe.
“How dare you,” you say, when Sansa slinks back inside.
She is very pale. You think, uncharitably, of all the gifts you’ve given her- the silks, the jewels, the things you could scarcely afford. The rouges, to color her soft cheeks. All the waste. You would strike her, but even in the depths of your rage you would not do unto her what she cannot do to you.
Where was that kindness when you embraced another man? You want to scream. You want to strip Sansa’s red, red, red fingers from your heart. If I did that to you- what ache would you have in your heart? Would you even care?
“I have given you everything. Everything. Everything that I can. And you repay me like this?”
Sansa straightens. “I have always done my duty.”
“Have you?” There’s a horrible fury in the tips of your white fingers, in the muscles of your red heart, in the depths of your black soul. You look at Sansa’s calm face and you want to shred it open. “Because you cannot do your duty to me while still loving another man.”
“I don’t-” then, as if she understands now, she goes even paler. Corpse-like. Akin to the trees she loves so much. “Oh.”
“Yes,” you hiss. “Oh.”
“You don’t understand,” she says, still terribly, horribly calm. “It was a-”
She clasps her hands together. “Family,” she says quietly. “I thought- he thought- we weren’t-” she inhales. “We’re a family, that’s what you don’t understand-”
Once, you’d been shot in the gut. You remember the pain; you remember screaming. For some reason, you hadn’t lost consciousness- not through the flight back to the medical tents, not through the surgery, done with knives and saws, not through a physician and his dirty, stained gloves digging through your insides. You’d thrown up, twice, thrice; you’d choked. You’d sobbed.
After, the men had called you a saint. Who else could live through such pain? Who else would want to? You’d been their hero, until they all died.
There isn’t much of a point to remembering that battle, you think. All you know is that moment- that is when you knew you were going to live. Live, live, live. Against all odds. Against all hopes. You hadn’t gotten through that pain to die silently. But that isn’t the point: the point is that searing, blazing pain is the worst thing you have ever felt.
The point is that your wife’s words hurt worse than that arrow ever could have.
“I am Jon,” you say, hurt transmuted to rage in your lungs like an alchemist’s iron to gold, dullness to flashing beauty. “I am Jon of House Targaryen, First of His Name, King of the South, and I do not need a Northerner to tell me of family.”
“You are also a Northerner,” says Sansa, something in her eyes, some deep-seated thing- “you are my father’s sister’s son, you are-”
“I am a Targaryen.”
“You’re named for my father’s foster father,” she retorts. “What true Targaryen would bear your name?”
“I am named for Jon Connington-”
“Pah,” says Sansa, and her composure is well and truly gone now. Her cheeks are flushed; she is glorious, even now, shining with the weight of her own anger. “You think Lyanna Stark would have named you after him? Him, lover to a man who kidnapped her, lover to a prince whose father killed hers? My father named you after she died. He called you Jon, after his foster father, whom he heard died in the Trident.”
“No,” you snarl.
Sansa tosses her hair. “You were stolen by Dornish sellswords while my father slept. Rhaegar Targaryen had you within a week. He called you Jon because he wanted my father to know that he had you, and knew the spies would send out the knowledge with the name.”
“You want to know who hired those sellswords?” Sansa asks, and you don’t, you don’t, you cannot speak for the inchoate scream building behind your teeth. She takes that silence as confirmation. “Jon,” says Sansa, “Connington.”
That, that is it. The end.
Boom, crackle, snap. One man’s spine. Another’s neck. A sword spearing through your father’s chest. The sliding curve of the letter S on a card handed to you by Jon fucking Connington. White chalk on your fingers. Death. War. Twenty years, a black-red crown. Bruises on your heart.
You shout, in a voice of thunder and fury, loud enough to silence the shrieking, tearing things in your soul: “GET OUT!”
Connington flees as well. But the Stormlords don’t, and neither does the North. And in the end, you are many things, but you are always, first, foremost: a warrior. You beat the Tyrells’ forays into the Stormlands with such vicious rage that there are thirty thousand heads displayed over the banks of the Mander. They sing it, the smallfolk, your men: blood, blood, green and gold to black and blood.
You? You, you are alive.
But you cannot sleep.
You try for a sennight, and then you leave it.
You spend your nights wandering the halls instead. One cannot see many stars from King’s Landing, not with the smoke, not with the brightness of a city’s fires, but you try anyhow once, lie with your head flat on a parapet and stare up at the sky until you can see nothing but black.
Then you go to the dungeons.
The third night, you head to the kitchens.
They’re empty- it’s past midnight, of course they’re empty- but when you pick your way over to the fire, someone grunts. You turn, trying to see, and you find the shadowed guard, a pitiful mess curled against a table. You move towards him.
He grunts again, before shifting on the bench to allow you room to sit.
“Couldn’a sleep?” he asks gruffly.
You make a sort of affirming sound. This isn’t the time for propriety- fuck propriety, you think, suddenly, alit with outrage. Fuck it all. You are alive, and you are living, and there is not a person in the world that can stop you. Fuck anyone who tries.
“Pep’s pastries ain’t 'ere, lad,” says the guard. “Hides ‘em well, now. Learned sommat in these years.”
“Nobles don’t eat pastries past one day,” you say automatically.
The guard rolls his hand. “Psh. Naw, ‘e feeds ‘em to the kids out back. Like little tomcats, every mornin’. Hellions, they are.”
That’s something you hadn’t known.
Twenty years, and you hadn’t known this of your own home.
“You’re supposed to be outside,” you say instead. “Not sitting in here.”
“Make your life easier, eh?” asks the guard.
You hesitate. “I mean-”
“Stranger, man, I know wha’ you mean.” He tilts his head back, the knob of his throat shining in the red light of the fire. “M’sister’s thrown me outta her house. Needed room to sleep. M’friend sat on this uniform for ten weeks, got night duty. ‘e’s got a girl, though, little thing with biggest eyes you’ll ever see. Needed the sleep. So I took it up.” His eye cracks open, sends you a gimlet stare. “Don’t go tellin’ the boss, yeah?”
It chokes in your throat, the agreement. You don’t understand. Why are you here? Why is he telling you this? What do you have in the weave of your skin, in the weft of your bone, that makes men want to speak to you?
You run your hands over the smooth wood of the table. It hurts in you, in your elbows, in the knobs of your spine. When you sleep, that’s what you see: your wife, red-wreathed; Jon Connington’s pale, shining eyes. Betrayal, glutinous and bitter down your throat.
“I just-” you sigh. “I’m so tired. Don’t you get tired?”
“All the fuckin’ time,” says the man, fervently.
“Then- why? I don’t understand. Why’re you listening to him, to the king? He’s just as big a fool’s as you. Or your friend. Or your sister. I don’t- I don’t understand.”
There’s a long silence, broken only by the crackle of the fire. Then the guard says, quietly, “I’ll tell you why I’m ‘ere. You know I was at that battle near the Vale? At the Saltpans, I think.”
“Fuck,” you sputter. “You were not.”
You’re too old, you think, staring at the man. And even if you were- even if you were like me, then how’d you survive? No chance. The Northerners dropped a fucking mountain on us two days after I-
“I was,” he says. “It was- bad. Worst battle I’d ever been in, and I’ve been in a lot. Then this boy next to me- dark-haired little bugger- takes an arrow to the gut.” He taps his belly, a little to the left of the bellybutton, and your stomach swoops in reminiscent shock. “Hustled ‘im off quick. Got ‘im to a doctor, ‘cause he’s still breathing, like. Screaming ‘is head off too. The whole fucking way. Nearly blew m’ears out.” He snorts. “Screamed the whole night through. Would’a done it longer, but any man’s got to sleep right?”
“You or him?”
He laughs. “Me,” says the guard. “I slept. But when I woke up? The bugger’s still alive. Barely, but the physician’s can’t say ‘ow ‘e’s managed that either. Says it’ll be one hour afore we know. Well, one hour came two, then three, then a full fucking day- and he’s still alive, and they’re all scratchin’ their heads.
“You wanna know what ‘is name was?” The guard leans back. You can see one scar, rippling down his brow, crossing over one eye. It’s very pale, even in the dim lighting. “Jon. M’ma said to me, once, that that’s what Jon means, y’know? Wali. Saint. Three ‘undred years, and not a one o’ the Targaryens woulda called themselves Jon. Real normal name, yeah? But this one did. Prince he was, and ‘e called ‘imself Jon like he was one o’ us. Stood at my shoulder, full day long. Didna even know who ‘e was, not until ‘is transfer orders came through.”
He sighs, like he’s remembering- the screams, the cheers, the riot of color and blood. The banners, high and shining. Battle is many things, but before you ride out, in the breath before that first bugle- it’s so fucking beautiful. Wali, you think. The Northerners have another name for it: Sant. Sainted. Blessed by god.
You remember waking, mornings later, and you remember how difficult it had been to step outside. Your head had hurt so much. But when you got your feet under you, when you limped to the opening- you remember the earth shaking. You remember hundreds of people stamping their feet. Singing. Wali, Wali, Wali. What have we to fear when death cannot hold us down? Wali. We are the invincible tonight. The gods have given us their blessings.
“Somethin’ that’d’ve killed us all left ‘im with just a pretty scar.” His lips tip up in a slow smile. “They killed us off, those fucking Northerners. But ‘e’s still ‘ere. So’m I. You wanna know why I trust ‘im? ‘Cause ‘e could’ve died, and ‘e didn’t. Stuff of songs, that.”
“He’s just a boy,” you say. “He isn’t worth this.”
“Ain’t ‘bout worth, lad,” says the guard. “Love’s sommat different.”
Hope. That is what you are to the people around you. You do not understand it. You cannot hope to. You are twenty years old, starving and terrified and grasping, and someone has slipped you the heart of the kingdom, dropped it straight into your bruised fingers. It was a mistake. It is a mistake. It is one of the most glorious mistakes of your life.
Hope does not work like a trade. You cannot take other’s hopes and have it become your own. But you can stand besides your father’s statues, your brother’s achievements, and you can find some lighted part of your soul. You can dig up your dream, and you can hold onto it, and then- then you, who are fighter and warrior and persevered beyond all others- you can say, I will not lose this silently. I will try, one last time, to see if it is worth the price.
You have held on to life with your teeth, with your legs, with your bruised, bloody fingers.
You- you have never let go of anything. You’ve never learned how to.
You will not learn now.
arc iv. sansa
this heart is a waxwork with echoes
“Please,” says Jon.
He has said it only once before to you: fingers hovering over the black ink of his name, eyes like eldritch, ever-lasting lamps. His fingers had been hot on your skin. You’d wondered, then, even as you reached up and ran your fingers through the hair at the base of his neck- the softness of it, contrasting against the lean power in his body- you’d wondered what marks he’d leave behind. What scars you’d have.
He’d looked so small when you told him- but hadn’t he known? How could he not have known? Your father had borne him out of Dorne. But Connington stole him away, and your father returned to the North with bereft hands.
You hadn’t been born yet. But the stories still circle: how your father had grieved, how your father had mourned, how the seeds of the war had been sown with Lyanna’s disappearance and watered with Brandon’s execution and burst into being with Jon’s kidnapping. You are so young. But the stories still fill up your mind, surge like black waters chopping through your soul. You have been raised besides grief; you’ve had it twined around you like a vine around stone.
He does not say it again. You did not- you cannot- expect him to. This, already, is more than you’d ever dreamt.
Jon Targaryen is here in front of you, in Winterfell, and he looks- he looks uncomfortable, yes, and he looks distraught, but underneath all of that there is an ease to his motions. This is where he belongs.
A good wife would accept his searching eyes, lean forwards, embrace him.
You have been good for so long.
Your fingers twitch, and you remember standing there- you remember the beach, the salt and the sand, the spray across the back of your silk skirt. For the first time in years you’d seen Bran. He’s grown so tall. You remember the shrieks of the horses, and how Bran’s face had shifted, from warmth to haunted, hunting tension. You remember how angry Jon had been. You can forgive a lot of him, you think; but not this. Not the accusations he’d spat out without once asking for your side.
He hasn’t said come back. All he’s offered you is an ear. And you have done many things over these past months, but you haven’t done anything wrong. You are good, you have always been good, but now anger is also sitting in you. Injustice, festered for long, long hours.
You say, “Welcome to Winterfell, My King.”
And you ignore the way his eyes shutter, the glow fading as waves before beachsand. It is not yours, his heart. It never was. You cannot forget that.
Ah, if only it were so simple.
You sleep in the same rooms. You are not far gone enough to deny him that. It’s as awkward as you’d bemoaned to everyone who’d listen, and even the backs of those who wouldn’t; the bed is not large, and the air is chill enough to make you wish you had those extra blankets instead of offering them to Jon.
The next morning: you are dressing, braiding your hair off with simple, economical moves, and Jon is still asleep. Or so you think. Because when you reach for the blue gown you’d set out for the day, he speaks.
“I like- I like you in red,” he says, slowly, hesitantly.
Slowly, fury lights up your insides.
It is your favorite color. It is also Targaryen, indisputably, undeniably Targaryen. How dare he try to tarnish that! How dare he-
“I live,” you say, cold and frozen as the wastelands beyond the Wall, “for your pleasure, my King.”
That night, you go to supper wearing the pale pink dress you’d worn ages and ages ago. It’s irreparably stained; red juice staining a full half of the skirt. You’d kept it to dye some dark purple in a few more moons, but it’ll serve a nice purpose now. It is many things: ugly, unflattering, provocative. But it is also red.
His face- when he sees you- gods, you think. Your mother is glaring, and everyone disapproves, all of them, your brothers and your sister and your father’s bannermen.
Who wears the dress they wore when learning of their new betrothal half a year after marriage? Who would dare?
But- gods, you think again, grateful for the veils you wear, simply because your smile is so much easier contained- if Jon were another man, he would be laughing.
He is- uncaring. And, in the same breath, he cares so much.
It makes you want to tear your hair out.
Calling it admiration would lessen it. Words are not enough for the maelstrom of emotions you have for this single, stupid man. The rage, and the hurt, and the sheer, striking love.
(This is the truth: he touched you so gently the first time that you could weep even now. He trembled when you told him of his own name, and had you not been lost to rage you might have taken him into your arms. You have never before wanted a feral thing, but when you lie beside him in your bed, your blood is too hot and your skin is afire. You have never before loved like this.)
But you are more than your loves.
“Your brother- Robb- said that you were meeting with your other brother.” Jon is lying on the bed in his normal fashion; arms propping up his head, curls rioting wildly against your pillows. Your mouth is dry, but you ignore it in favor of removing the pins from your hair. “That night, on the beach. I was... I assumed. Wrongly. ‘m sorry.”
Enunciate, shrieks your old tutors, in your head. Had you ever thought to speak like this, mumbles and lilts, they would have struck you between your knuckles.
“Someone warned you,” you say instead, voice crisp and cool. “Someone- it was a letter I’d written, yes, but never sent. Someone took that. Set you up, set me up.”
Jon inclines his head slowly. “Yes. It was- well. I trusted him. He’d never been unkind to me.” You wait, don’t say anything, and he continues: “Jon Connington.”
“Oh,” you say, before you can stop yourself.
Abruptly, the memory of his mockery comes to you- his sneer, the oh hanging in the air of the Red Keep like a drawn sword. You are a Stark and a Northerner; ignoring challenges such as those is not in you. But here, now, there is none of that cold anger. Only a crackling fire and a half-dressed man and you, with your hair in sheets down your spine.
Jon Connington: a friend, in a friendless life. If someone ever hurt you like that, you don’t know how you’d remain standing. Then you think- no, someone did hurt me, someone sold me, and I’m not dead, I’m not even bowed-
Your fingers jerk. Ten pins clatter down, against the stone, but before you can bend to reach for them, your husband is there.
His eyes are so dark.
His hands are warm, when he hands the pins to you. Then he cups your palms in his, not tightly, not loosely; just there. Hot. A brazier threatening to burst into open flame. You- you are a moth, helpless and drawn to him, eyes upturned; wings aflame. For less than a heartbeat, you think, you are the brightest thing in the world.
“Come back,” he says.
“I cannot,” you say softly.
He doesn’t look away. You admire that of him, his inability to avoid the pain that is coming. You loathe it, too, his foolishness. “It would be so easy.”
It would, perhaps. But you are not just your loves, not anymore. And you will not return to a place where you cannot be content. You are not running from something; you cannot be dragged any longer.
You reach up and press your fingers to Jon’s hair, to his beard, to the long strip running down from his ear to his narrow, sharp jaw, where the hair goes from soft to bristly.
Then you kiss him.
Jon kisses like a- a storm. A tempest. Waves, sinking and swallowing in turn. He is not gentle, and he is not ungentle. When you pull away, both of you are flushed.
“No,” you say. He blinks, as if trying to remember- and then he does, and his entire face changes. But it is like trying to slot stone over the sun; no matter how one tries, the rawness, the brilliance, lives on in people’s memories. Before he can step away, you reach out and thread your fingers through his. His pulse is slow, steady, lazy like the crackle of the fire behind him. “Listen,” you say. “Give me a reason to follow.”
He is gone the next morning.
You did not know what to expect- he is not a man that you can anticipate, not in the least- but not this. Flight is cowardly, and Jon Targaryen is many things; but not a coward.
It is the first time you feel disappointed with him. You don’t know what to make of it.
And then: whispers trickle in.
Whispers of ancient groves being reborn once more. Copses twenty years burned, becoming thickets once more. Trees growing swifter than ever before. The Isle of Faces, you hear, has become greener in one turn of the moon than it’s been in all the years of Rhaegar’s reign.
You hear a lot- you don’t put much stock in such whispers. But you listen, and you remember.
When you receive a gift from your husband, a parcel clumsily stitched together, cloth too rough, you almost know what it is before you’ve opened it. It is morning. Your family is besides you. It’s been a long time since your mother read that letter, but it hasn’t been very long at all. Your fingers shake just a little when you undo the bindings.
A white branch spills out.
Robb lurches to his feet. Your mother shields Rickon’s eyes, averting her face like she’s seen something terrible. Arya, too, goes pale at the sight of a weirwood branch, broken off so nonchalantly.
But you- you smile.
Jon Targaryen does not know the songs needed to pluck out a branch without incurring the gods’ disfavor. He would not believe in the songs even if you taught them to him. No: the only gods he believes in are blooded, deathful beings. But that does not mean him unkind. It’s taken you so long to understand that.
Too long, perhaps.
A white branch. In another world, it might mean peace.
In this one: it means something more complicated. It means something harder, hardier. Love, of a sort, in all its infinite permutations. Jon Targaryen’s heart: small and bruised and shining still, bright as the stars around you.
A weirwood’s branches change, when it bears fruit. This is something that you know- the branch is stiff, so stiff, when it first grows. It will shatter at the lightest touch. But when it bears fruit? It curves with the weight, downwards, still hard on the outside; softened on the inside, where none can see.
This is something that you know: the branch your husband sent to you is bent, like the first curve of your name.
This is something that you know: none would have cared for that weirwood had your husband not ordered them to.
This is something that you know: he has, at last, given you a reason to return.
“Sansa,” says your mother.
You smile back at her. There is a vial under your veils, a hundred silks neatly stacked on one another. You do not need that vial any longer, but you will keep it anyhow.
“How do I know he won’t do this again?” your mother asks.
In the end, she is your mother. She loves you like nothing else in this world. Fire and storms and the turn of the tides cannot match this, this woman with hair braided down her back and tears in her eyes. You are so blessed that you’ve known this love for all the years of your life. You have never felt so loved as when she held you in the godswood and told you that she would help you leave, this woman to whom duty has been paramount all her life. Because there is right in the world, and then there is love, and between duty and between love? There is only ever one victor.
You lean forwards and catch her hands in yours.
“I am not leaving,” you say, clearly, calmly. “I am going. That is the difference, this time.”
“Oh, Sansa,” she says, anguished, tender, before reaching up, cupping your face. “Oh, beta, I am so proud of you.”
You give him the weirwood branch, when you arrive in King’s Landing.
Jon does not smile, but his eyes do.
“Peace,” you say, and he reaches out, clasps your hands, as if you are a general on a battlefield; as if he knows no other way to greet you.
You are exasperated. You are so fiercely, fondly so.
That evening, you ride out. The sky is so much brighter in the south- beach colors, you say, laughing. The ocean reaches up and paints the sky at dawn and dusk, because it gets tired of being the same. Your fingers tangle with Jon’s. He is smiling, in his eyes, in his mouth- he is talking, and you are so happy in this moment that you think you could fly.
It happens like this: you feel a tug at your wrist. You turn, wit sharp on the tip of your tongue. There is no blood. Not yet. You breathe in, slowly, smoke dragging on the inside of your lungs, and then you see the arrow. Red and gold fletchings. Jon’s face hasn’t even shifted yet, but you are-
Oh, gods, you think.
Your weight is levering Jon, holding him upright. The horses are screaming around you, and you don’t care. You are staring at him, at your husband, and you are watching the brightness slowly fade from his eyes.
Your life is held in heartbeats.
One, before Robb read out that letter.
One, before Bran rode to meet you on a white horse.
One, before you let a white, curved branch spill onto your lap.
One, before your husband dies in front of you.
The physicians are shouting in the room, desperately trying to magic up a cure. The arrow had poison, people are whispering; it struck too close to his heart. Jon Targaryen will be dead by sun-up.
You are seventeen years old. You are not ready to be a widow.
When you cannot bear their whispering, muttering words, you flee. You’ve been gifted with your father’s long legs. You let them bear you to the godswood, where your husband has pruned and cared and grown a tree to provide comfort for you. It is still a small thing, the weirwood, but it has grown so much since you last saw it.
It is as your marriage.
Please, you think, reaching out and gripping its boughs. Your fingers ache. Please, don’t take him from me. He is not- he is worthy of so much more. He can be so great. And I love him.
Please, you think, like a person possessed. Please.
The wind rustles. It does not sound like a song. You bend your head over white roots, spreading and spreading to all corners of the godswood, and you weep.
When you wake, you will not remember. But this is what you dream of: a son, running in your godswood, bark scraping his shins. A tree with leaves shining, singing. You turn, and your husband is there. There are scars on his face that you haven’t seen before.
You are no prophet, to remember this. But your gods are not unkind. When you wake, there is peace in your heart.
A reminder: this is not all of your life. A truth: someday, it will be better than this.
Morning comes. You wake, holding a knife to your scalp. News will come to you, and no matter how cold your fingers are, your hand will shear the hair off. You are shaking from the cold, from the morning dew gathering in the hollows of your wrists. There are tears gathering in your eyes, and you do not know how to stifle them.
Then: a man. Tall, orange-haired, strangely dressed. He runs in. He doesn’t look up- he doesn’t care, about your gods or the silence the trees lend you. There is no peace in him. He says, gasping, please. Come.
Your fingers lift, twist, tighten on the hilt of the knife. You can feel the weightlessness of it already, the fall of your braid. Seventeen years of hair, tumbled to the ground. Perhaps that is why the widows of old do that: to unlatch the grief. To keep themselves from collapsing with the weight of it all.
My Queen, he says. It is something in his eyes- a light, a life- and you pause. Come.
You breathe in. Your hands are shaking. You have never been so terrified in your life. You have never wanted something this badly before. You walk, unsteadily, one step after another. The people part in front of you, and you don’t even notice.
You’re there, in front of his rooms. You breathe in. The knife in your hand clatters to the floor from nerveless fingers.
arc v. jon
so burn me with fire, drown me with rain
i’m going to wake up screaming your name
You don’t die.
You have so much more now, than when last you had an arrow in your body. Do your enemies think you’ll die so easy now? That ruling has sated you? Softened you? If anything, it’s whetted your appetite. You have not forgotten the copper, sharp in your mouth. You cannot think that you ever will.
Sansa sits beside you, pale, wan, motionless. You think, I’m paying more attention to her than to anything else.
Slowly, you drag your attention back to the general.
“So you know who did this,” you summarize, cutting off his stammering, long-winded explanation.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” He bows, so low his hair nearly brushes the floor. “The assassin- the attempted assassin- was most willing to aid us, once it became clear to him that his conspirators won’t try to break him out of our prisons.”
Of course they wouldn’t, you think, leaning forward. You knew that he’d been captured, but not when; not how. It is a relief that the cogs of the kingdom will keep turning even without you at the helm. They know that I’ve too many people loyal to me.
A novel experience in Westeros under the Targaryens, perhaps, but your men have a personal loyalty to you, sown and sealed in blood and valor.
You love them for it.
“Well?” you ask irritably. Your shoulder itches and aches under the bandages and growing scabs. Before you can scratch at it, Sansa reaches up and laces her fingers through yours.
The general startles. “Ser?”
You take a deep breath and, forcibly, calm yourself. “Who was it?”
“Your sister,” says the general. You feel your hands tighten. It’s only Sansa’s presence that makes you stop, breathe, relax. “Rhaenys.”
“But these- this assassin,” says Sansa. You jerk your head to look at her; she’s frowning, like she’s thinking very hard. “They’re hired, you said? And they’re expensive?”
“Yes, my Queen.”
“The Martells are in debt,” says Sansa, slowly. “Have been for- years. And Rhaenys Targaryen’s only allies right now are the Martells, that’s what you said.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
“The Martells have other allies, then.”
“Who?” asks the general. “Who would-”
Sansa leans forwards, bending like a tree in a storm. She looks so graceful. She says, quietly, “The arrow was red and gold.”
He blanches. The same thought occurs to the both of you simultaneously.
There were three men in that tent, the night that you took this crown. One was Oberyn Martell, impoverished from twenty years of funding for a war against the North. Another was Mace Tyrell, whom you slew in pitched battle, whose head even now is decorating the side of the Mander. But the last?
Tywin Lannister, with his gold mines and his golden castle and his golden-haired Kingslayer.
If there is anyone in all of Westeros who would wish to oppose you, who could oppose you- it’s him.
“See if it’s true,” you command. “Check our spies in the Westerlands.”
Rhaenys Targaryen and Jaime Lannister wed a fortnight previous, writes one of the spies. The Westerlands is preparing for war.
She is your sister. You’ve grown up besides her, six years younger; she’s been sticky-faced, snot-nosed, irritating and small-minded and foolish. You know her first love. You don’t know her first kiss, but you know that three guards cried when they heard she’d given that kiss away. You’ve seen her grow from a child to a woman, awkward to grace. Once upon a time, she offered you rose petals in the gardens and they were the sweetest thing you’d ever tasted. Once upon a time, you’d loved her.
(You’ve taken her birthright. You’ve stolen it out from under her like the throne of Westeros is a sheet at a jester’s feet. You have this crown, you have this throne, you have this country, and you don’t regret any of what you have done to her. Not one bit.)
Let her ride to war.
You will crush her.
Goodbye, you say.
You don’t say that you’ll miss her. But not saying it doesn’t make it less true. Sansa is wearing dark red today, glittering like a shower of diamonds and ground glass. You feel her hand reach up, smear red over your forehead in one long, sharp line.
There is so much that you’ve not learned of her. How she sounds in the mornings, and how she likes her food, and what kind of colors look best on her- but this, this is something that you’d known, something that you’d forgotten: Sansa knows war. She has bid goodbye to brothers and fathers and uncles time after time; seen off armies with a smile and a blessing. There is no difference now.
Her hand is so warm against your face. Her fingers are so soft. But her eyes- they blaze through her veils, sear into your throat, your spine, the softest, fleshiest part of your heart.
She says, Win.
You see their army. Your sister is not besides Tywin Lannister, whose head shines silver in the bright sunlight, nor next to her erstwhile husband, whose head is still glimmering gold. You are told, time and time again: don’t go for the parley yourself. But you don’t know how to leave such matters to others. Trust is not something that comes easy to you.
When you step into their tent, your shoulder aches.
“Majesty,” drawls the Kingslayer.
“Kingslayer,” you return.
Jaime Lannister’s face darkens like you’ve just struck him. You don’t smile; you don’t pause at all. Just continue on your way to speak to Tywin Lannister.
“Lord Lannister,” you say evenly. “There was a time when I thought we could be allies.”
“Indeed,” he says, but nothing more.
Then Rhaenys walks in.
It’s- it’s undescribable.
You’d forgotten, in these past months, how it feels to be in your family’s presence. Like you’re being drowned alive, maybe; like there’s a sun, and everyone else is nothing but a candle. When Rhaenys enters the tent, you want to cringe with the force of it. It’s as if a dragon in truth has just swept in.
“Brother,” she greets you.
You nod back. “Rhaenys.”
“You have my crown,” Rhaenys says, stepping closer to Jaime Lannister- not, you note, in some distant part of your mind, bothering to approach Tywin- and dragging her eyes in a scathing look over your generals. “I want it back.”
This, too, you’d forgotten. Her directness. The impatience she has for dancing around uncomfortable truths. You miss Sansa, suddenly, abruptly; you miss how she would mix the truth with sugar, never diluting it, just making it more palatable. A gift, in truth. Anyone can say anything directly. It takes skill to tell the truth kindly.
“I’ve fought rather hard for it,” you say mildly.
Her eyes flash. “I don’t want you to die,” Rhaenys says, coldly, furiously. “But I will not hesitate if you push me.”
Well, then, you think. Diplomacy’s overrated.
“Our armies are the same size,” you retort. “What you have in trebuchets I have in elephants, so don’t bother trying to bluster your way through this. I’ve seen the reports.”
The Kingslayer kicks his heels back and grins lazily up at you. “Ah, but have you read them?”
Anger, hot and furious, flushes through you. How dare-
“We, too, don’t wish for men to die,” interrupts Tywin hastily, throwing a look at his son. “We are all of Westeros, are we not? Let’s have it for single combat. One man against another, and the victor wins it all.”
Your fingers curl inwards, digging into your palm. You want to tear Jaime Lannister apart like you haven’t wanted anything, in a very, very long time.
“Would your champion be him?” you ask roughly.
The orange-haired general you’d become inordinately fond of jerks behind you, sputtering out an objection. You ignore him. Everyone ignores him, engrossed as they are in watching Jaime Lannister’s green eyes narrow in contemplation before sharply nodding.
And- see, the thing is- he’s good. They’re all- the Lannisters from the page up to Tywin fucking Lannister himself- are very good. But you know Rhaenys. And she, too, is not bad. But when faced with you, when on the cusp of the victory she’s wanted for nigh on a year now- she smirks, a flash of white teeth in a heartbreakingly beautiful face.
You can see it now. How bloodless their plan had been, and how well executed. Get you angry. Then get you to agree to single combat. Then break you down in front of your entire army. You are so fucking furious at yourself, at your own foolishness, but also-
You look at Rhaenys, and you think, you will have to pry this throne from my dead hands.
I shall not die easy.
Just as easily as you can read Rhaenys, it seems, she can read you too: her face shifts, tightening, as she reads your rage, the clear-minded fury. Realization dawns along with the sting of defeat.
“I don’t bargain with oathbreakers,” you say.
She tilts her head up to you, like a flower rising to meet the sun. She is as bright, as beautiful, as the sun itself. She is as deadly as any dragon. But you are a wolf and a dragon both, and there is nothing of brightness in you. Just jaws too sharp to not bite into the world.
“A fortnight of peace, then,” she says. “Let your men try to convince you otherwise. Think a little longer on this. Thousands of men don’t need to die.”
This is mine, you think, fiercely, furiously. This is mine. I won’t give it up.
You can’t sleep. You’re awake- hunched over letters and the tedious minutiae of ruling that won’t leave you behind, not even while off to war- when there’s a commotion. You lift your head, frowning; who would enter the tent in such early hours? Why? It’s raining, just lightly, drizzling, and you can’t imagine what could be of such importance- but even as you’re debating on getting up to find out, your tent is invaded.
It’s your wife. Standing behind her, just slightly, is a tall, dark-cloaked shadow. But it’s neither of them that catch your attention.
Because behind both of them, wearing old, worn clothes that belong better on a merchant than any lord, hands bound, unflinching and tall in the rain, is Jon Connington.
“What is this?” you demand loudly.
Sansa strips off her veil. She’s shaking, but more like she’s terrified than that she’s cold.
“This is my brother,” she tells you. The shadow behind her flips his hood back, revealing a perfectly forgettable face. Good-looking; you can see his resemblance to Sansa, particularly in the shape of his cheekbones- but nothing of the striking features that every other Stark he’s met seems to have. “Bran.”
You nod at him, and he bows back to you.
“Majesty,” he says quietly. “I’m afraid that I have some very... bad news.”
“Bad as in what sense?”
“Bad as in-” Bran Stark hesitates, like he’s looking for a suitable metaphor, before he says, “-as in the Trident, when Robert Baratheon was killed. For the rebels.”
You feel your heart start to pick up, slowly, like it knows the bad news is on its way and needs the time to accelerate. “The rebels lost.”
“The rebels retreated,” says Sansa. Her eyes are very large. “They surrendered ground, yes, but not much beyond that. Not anything more than their allies.” Her lips thin. “It’s- you can’t afford to surrender the ground.”
You turn back to Bran instead of acknowledging the truth of Sansa’s statement. “What, particularly, is this news?”
“An army, on its way from Essos. Headed by a girl called Daenerys. She’s calling herself the true heir to Westeros.”
You’ve heard that name before: Daenerys, of Dorne. Daenerys, the sister your father lost years and years ago, while your grandmother huddled and prayed in the broken ruins of Dragonstone. Your father burned the ruins when he heard of her death. He never once went looking for any sister, though, nor any brother.
How certain are you? you think, but don’t voice.
Bran Stark is a spy for the Northern Army. He wouldn’t be here without a reason. If he’s telling you- that means he knows. He knows, and he’s-
You look into his eyes. He looks so calm, so self-assured, but he’s so fucking young. You’re twenty. Bran Stark is younger than that, you think; in another life, he might have looked up to you instead of at you, like you’re an adversary with a common enemy.
You say, “Why is Connington outside my tent?”
Bran blinks. “Assurance,” he says evenly. “We captured him two nights ago, when he tried to flee to the Vale. I wanted you to know- he’s the one who told us. One of his friends fled when Rhaegar died and went to Essos, where he’d been raising Daenerys for these past years. Connington was the one who told us the whole story. We knew something was coming, but not everything. Not until he put all the pieces on the table for us.”
“He helped you?”
“Why?” you burst out.
Bran sends you a long, measuring look. Then he says, “I don’t know.”
You want to scream. You want to smash something. You are so tired of being calm, of being measured, of being even and reasonable. You want to tear Jaime Lannister apart like he’s a rag doll. You want to go to war tomorrow, armor shining, heart in your throat, life in your tight, tight hands.
But then you see Sansa, and you are-
“Why?” you ask again, raggedly, looking at her.
She tilts her head, just slightly, and Bran gets the message- he leaves, in long, ground-swallowing strides. You are left to just watch her, the water dripping slowly from her skirts, darkening the muslin of your tent. Slowly, she steps closer to you. When she’s close enough that you can smell her perfume, sweet and heady, she presses something cold and small into your hands.
A metal vial.
Your fingers shake when you unstopper it. A milky liquid, chalky and pale, spills out onto your hand. You know this. You know it so well: three disguised Northerners snuck into the Targaryen’s camp with buckets of it, calling it milk; offering it for free. The soldiers went wild with the joy of something that wasn’t just water and oats. By morning, two thousand men were dead.
All of this happened just hours before your fifth birthday.
You look up at Sansa, heart in your throat, and she wraps the skin- your hand- in the sopping veil she’d been wearing just a few moments previous.
“My mother gave me that,” she says quietly. “If you- if I- ever thought that it would be too difficult. That you’d dishonored me. That my life wasn’t worth living.” She lifts her eyes to yours, moon-like, shining. “She gave me a choice.”
No, you think, distantly, far beyond horror.
But Sansa doesn’t stop. “Poison,” she says, as if you haven’t realized. “I had no reason to take it. But- gods, don’t you see? That’s why I kept it. That’s why Connington’s here.” Her hands- they are so soft. They are the softest things you’ve ever felt. But now? Her voice is even softer, somehow, in some strange manner. “We can be cruel to the people we love. But that doesn’t mean we love them less.”
“He hates me,” you whisper.
She reaches up and brings your head to rest on hers. “Perhaps,” she agrees. With anyone else, you would flinch. With Sansa, you know that there will be something to soothe the sting to follow. “But he also wants you to live. It can be complicated. It usually is.”
“Not to me.”
“Now that,” says Sansa, laughing just a little- and you can smell the lemons on her breath, the warmth in her lungs- and the ache in your shoulder lessens, like a shiver before the sun, “I know to be a lie.”
For three days, you discuss how to defeat the Lannisters without ruining your army. For surely you’ll need one, with the Essosians on their way, a fresh one; a good one. It’s a futile three days. Walking in, you’d known there to be only one choice.
On the steps of the Red Keep, Sansa Stark had anointed you with the red paste of weirwoods. She had looked to you like she was a priestess, divinity just a breath from her lovely, lovely face. Her clothes had shone so bright, they’d blinded you.
This is what she had said to you: Win.
This is the truth: you don’t know any other way to live.
This is a thing you know so well it has become your first, loudest chant: you are the best.
“Ready the men,” you say grimly. “And send this letter to the Lannisters.”
The ink is still shining: Jon Targaryen accepts your challenge of single combat.
“Husband,” says Sansa. Then, desperately, “Jon.”
“I’ll come back,” you say.
“Don’t make promises you cannot keep,” she replies. “And yes, of course you will.”
Her hands tangle with yours. Her pulse is fast, fast, fast. You kiss her, and it goes even faster.
You meet Jon Connington hours before you are to fight to the death.
“You should have told me,” you say.
He nods. “You would have had a better life with them. But you wouldn’t have been king, if you’d gone North.”
“It isn’t because of you that I’m king,” you say sharply. “I did that on my own.”
“Ah, Jon,” says Jon Connington, laughing. “Did you think I wouldn’t know? I saw you, when you were nothing more than a babe. First time you held a sword, you right near broke your wrist. First time you were in a battle, you led them to victory. Rhaegar spent five years throwing you into the worst battles and you spent five years winning over men’s hearts.” He looks up at you, and he looks like he’s proud of you. “There’s people in this world too bright to be held down. ‘Course I didn’t make you king. But I knew- when I gave you that sword, even- that you’d be great.”
You hate him.
“I fought,” you spit. “Every damn day of my life, I fought for every scrap, for everything, and you think-”
“I think you’ve never known not to fight,” he says. There’s a light in his eyes- solemn, truthful- and it makes you want to blink very hard. It makes your chest feel just a little too tight. His hands are bound, but he leans up, like he’d take your chin in his if they weren’t. “Don’t go learning it now, you hear me?”
You are standing on a sunny field.
Your armor is better than any armor you’ve ever owned in your life. Your sword is sharp and shining in your hands. Opposite you is Jaime Lannister, broad and tall and just as bright. He is a better swordsman than you. He is smarter than you. He has a better reach, experience, skill on you, with none of age’s drawbacks or injuries to slow him down.
This is how it goes: you are on a field, and twenty thousand men are behind you, and twenty thousand men are in front of you, and none of it matters.
You are twenty years old. You are a king. You have spent twenty long, long years learning to hold on to life.
And under that sun, it’s all so simple.
You know the ending before it’s begun. The breath is knocked out of your chest, and you don’t care; you’re already moving to grab his spear, to knee him in the chest. Jaime Lannister is good. Perhaps he’s even better than you.
But not today.
It’s all so simple. Your blade carves through the air, a song only you can hear, a dance you are crafting as you move. Lannister is a good partner. He keeps up for a long time; but you have never learned how to let go of anything.
This is how it goes: you fight, and then, in a twist you’d known to do before you ever got your hands on a sword, a wild, half-mad execution that should break your own wrist, you disarm him.
This is how it goes: your sword is pressed to his throat, and you are not surprised at all.
“Yield,” you say.
Jaime Lannister bares blood-flecked teeth up at you. You jab at his throat further, harder, and he chokes.
“Yield,” you say again. “Now.”
This is how it goes: the King does not slay the Kingslayer.
This is how it goes: you stand, and you are bruised, aching, tired and worn. You have won again, as you’ve won everything you’ve ever won in your life: scrabbling, tussling, dust under your nails and blood hot in your mouth. Hard-won, bitter-fought. Victory is all the sweeter for it.
It isn’t your last battle.
It isn’t your first.
But it is the only one with Sansa besides you, behind you, and it holds a special place in your heart.
This, this is how it goes: twenty years, and you are victorious.
You do not know how to not be.