If looks could kill Arya would have been dead multiple times before their carriage even arrived in the courtyard, her Lady Mother had been glaring at her ever since King’s Landing had come into view on the Kingsroad. If anyone had the right to glare in that stupid carriage it was her, not Catelyn Tully. Arya was the one that had been dragged from her home to live now in the one place she never wanted to see from the inside. The bloody Red Keep. Literally bloody, by what the history books tell. Sansa was lucky ghosts only existed in her head, or else the Red Keep, where her sister had been living these past six moon’s turns, would be one the most haunted places in Westeros.
Arya hated all of it. Its walls of stone in the ugliest red. The way it stood tall and arrogant against the sky, while right underneath people lived and died in their own faeces in a shithole called Flea Bottom. But the kings and queens of old days were smart enough to fill their castle with gardens and orchards, so the royal family and all their highborn lickspittles didn’t have to wrinkle their noses over the stench creeping up their walls. Well, they still should. The moment Arya stepped from the carriage, which had smelled of home and her mother’s lovely perfume, she immediately noticed the slight scent of faeces and rotting flesh in the air. Apparently cultivating lemon trees and lavender wasn’t enough to banish the Flea Bottom odour from the royal palace. But living in the Red Keep for so long probably made their noses conk out long ago, since they all seemed surrounded by their personal cloud of obtrusive perfume.
And apparently, her very own sister was intent to become one of those perfumed idiots herself. When Sansa embraced her in a tight hug Arya felt sick immediately, though it was hard to tell if it was only her sister’s southern perfumes or her unexpected compliments, “Look at you! What have you done to my scrawny tomboy sister? You look absolutely stunning!” Sansa chirped. But then it dawned on Arya, her sister was probably just complimenting herself upon seeing Arya wearing one of the silken dresses she had sent to Winterfell. Of course. “Stunning indeed.” her father assured smilingly and pulled her close and kissed her forehead, as he used to do back home, before he and Sansa had left to live in the south. How she had missed him. Feeling his strong arms around her, shielding her from any kind of harm; and most of all her mother’s wrath. How wonderful to find herself surrounded by his scent again, after so many moon’s turns her father still smelled of the North, all woods and stone and soil, iron, leather and smoke. Maybe there was hope for her as well. “The way you look, I wonder what is there to be turned into a proper lady-” “A lot, Ned.” her mother reprimanded him immediately, “She hasn’t changed a bit, rest assured, my love.” Lady Catelyn clearly feared her husband’s soft spot for their younger daughter might ruin all her efforts to turn her into a copy of Sansa. Arya could barely suppress her annoyed huff. She had just gotten her father back, who she had missed so dearly. Why did her mother have to ruin even such moment? Unbelievable.
Thankfully her sister intervened before things escalated again, offering Arya to show her to her chamber. Beggars can’t be choosers. It was the first opportunity to finally get away from her mother and Arya took it. Even though that meant to listen to Sansa’s over-exited chatting about how marvellous life at court would be. Anything was better than listening to their mother reprimanding her all day long, so Arya urged Sansa to lead the way. Before that hawk of a mother realises I’m gone. Her sister didn’t seem to mind, she babbled on, how she admired the queen, the princess and some Tyrell girl for their exquisite taste in fashion. How she and said Tyrell became best friends and how that made Jeyne go green with envy. How she would spend every spare moment with that Margaery girl now and rumours since would say the crown prince would marry one of them. “Of course, you must not spread such gossip, Arya. That would be entirely improper. But can you imagine, me becoming queen!” Hadn’t that been the plan all along? “Arya, he is so handsome! I bet, even you’ll swoon over him when you see him.” “Certainly not!” “Oh, sweet Arya, how innocent you still are!” Sansa teased her cheerfully, “There’s a huge ‘I told you so’ coming for you, little sister!” Yap, definitively, only that I’ll be the one saying it, Arya thought.
By the time Sansa left the chamber to let her sister ‘recover’ from the journey, Arya actually felt exhausted, mentally. How could her sister remember all those names, rules and shit? Arya leaned against her closed chamber door, taking a deep long breath, before she rushed to her trunks to finally put on some real clothes. Luckily she had managed to outsmart her Lady Mother. Before her departure Arya had put some of her old boy clothes and Needle under a false bottom in one of the trunks, which of course had been discovered during her mother’s inspection of her luggage. Lady Catelyn had fumed and Arya had ranted and pleaded and ultimately lost their argument. But what Lady Stark hadn’t known was that Arya had had an accomplice. Hidden in Jon’s old room had stood an identical trunk. Packed with some layers of nice dresses, but underneath lay Arya’s real treasures; breeches, jerkins, shirts and two pair of boots, Jon’s old chainmail, a padded jerkin and some pieces of armour, her practice sword and a dagger and when their Lady Mother was done with her inspection and chiding Arya, Robb returned Needle to its owner and he and Arya switched the trunks. So, all Arya had to do now was to quickly hide her treasures atop the canopy over her bed and rearrange the other contents of her trunks a bit, so her mother wouldn’t notice one of them was suddenly half empty.
Afterwards Arya got out of her dress and underskirt and hid them under some other dresses. No need to give her mother a head start, by letting her find those items laying on the floor. The nasty pair of uncomfortable shoes she had worn these past hours she intended to get rid of for good. But first she slipped into a pair of breeches, a linen shirt, Jon’s old jerkin and her sparring boots. Time to explore. She needed to know her ways around in this damn castle, and find safer hiding spots for her treasures, before some maid gets the idea to brush off the dust of the canopy.
As soon as she was out of her chamber she ran down the stairs in the Tower of the Hand and took the first corridor leading away from where Sansa and she had come earlier and only stopped once; to throw those damn lady shoes from a window, she grinned satisfied to see them disappear in some evergreen bushes. She found the stables, the armoury and the forge within no time. Pity, they’ll look here first. So, she climbed onto walls and snuck through windows, exploring the interesting parts of the keep. The real keep. And found the kitchen by literally following her nose. There would be cats to chase. It was about time to practice. Her bones and muscles probably were all rusty from that boring carriage traveling. A few moments later she followed a slender striped cat through a window to the storage room, where they disturbed an old black tomcat, a fierce one, lashing out at both of them. A worthier opponent, Arya decided and followed the nasty tomcat to the wine cellars. Soon after the black cat disappeared through a hole in an old wooden door, apparently sure he would be rid of Arya now. “Run, little kitty cat! I’m coming to catch you!” she teased while she picked the lock.
And the old tomcat indeed proved to be a worthy and brave opponent. When she opened the door, it sat right behind it, on top of another staircase leading downwards; swinging his tail and hissing, he challenged her. And she accepted, attempting to catch him once more. But again, he escaped and led her further down into the vaults of the keep. She was so focussed on outwitting and catching him that she hadn’t realised she had stumbled across the Red Keep’s secret jewels. The skulls. The first ones she passed were so small, she had thought them skulls of dogs or wolves. But then she stepped around the corner and found herself in a long vault, scarcely lit by the few torches hanging from the wall, their light barely reaching the high ceilings, and at the other end of the room a pair of giant empty eye sockets stared at her, watched her stepping closer in awe. Balerion. “The Black Dread.” Arya whispered intrigued, when she finally stood in front of the giant skull, admiring its onyx-like surface, she couldn’t help but touch its lower jaw. Father was right. It wasn’t like any other skull she had seen, more armour than bone. Because of the iron. But what amazed her most was, it didn’t feel cold to her touch, as if it still harboured some of the fire that it once was. Dragons were fire come alive. The whole room felt warmer than the ones before. Strange. She was so fascinated by the dragon’s skull, she had completely forgotten her surroundings.
The tomcat seemed to find her sudden state of distraction insulting and decided to remind her that the two of them still had a battle to fight. He stroked past her leg and leapt onto the dragon jaw, wielding his claws at her. But that was his mistake, he thought she wouldn’t pay attention. “Huh! Got you!” she had quickly grabbed him and placed a kiss on his head before she let go of him again, “No need to be nasty, feisty old tom! You’re not the first and certainly not the last to face defeat against me! But rest assured, you were one of my worthiest opponents and it was a real pleasure to meet you. In fact, you’re already my favourite person in this whole damn castle.” Arya tried to appease the sulking cat, that had fled into the insides of the skull and was glaring at her now. “Well, since the two of us are about to become the best of friends here, I think I should give you a name and happens I know just the perfect one for you, you little black dread.” she announced grinning. “Funny, I had thought exactly the same thing!” a man's voice answered.