The list they gave her was meant to insult her, Sansa knew.
Perhaps insult was too strong a word. It was a farce, certainly. A jape; a trap; a selection of alternatives so vile that how could she choose anyone other than Aegon? She could guess what Lord Varys had been whispering to Lord Blackfyre – a pretty child, but empty-headed, captivated by beauty and pageantry… she will run after the most handsome and gallant boy you lay before her, regardless of house or station… to avoid fostering resentment in that delicate breast, you might even offer her a choice…
It was no true choice, of course. An ancient, toothless Fossoway; a drunken, red-nosed Wode; a sly-eyed, lecherous Lannisport Lannister. There was Prince Aegon Blackfyre himself, of course, and there was Ser Calder, the indifferent, taciturn hedge knight whom Petyr urged her to accept, promising that it was the safest option, the best way for her to remain under his protection. She had almost thought to consent to it, even though Aegon seemed kind and gallant and brave – everything that would have made her sigh with delight just a few short years ago.
Petyr could well have had his way if it hadn’t been for the last name on the list.
Sansa was weighing up which would be more valuable – the power of a Queen, or the anonymity of a courtier? Defying the Blackfyres, or evading Petyr’s kisses? – when it came to her that the sixth name on the list was not an apparition. She had thought mayhaps that her mind had written it there, just as it had been conjuring him up in her dreams, night after night, ever since he had left her the night of the battle. Yet as much as she stared, the writing did not fade. They truly thought to offer up Sandor Clegane as a husband.
He had been Joffrey’s dog, presiding grimly over some of the blackest days of her life. Now they were calling him the Butcher of Saltpans, and he was just as fearsome and burnt as ever, though he refused to speak to anyone any more and never sought her out. Sansa knew that the inclusion of his name on the list was meant as the greatest jape of all. Offer her the Lannister Hound, my lord, just as a reminder… she will remember well how brutal life in King’s Landing can be without the proper protection…
They had no idea what they were giving her. Sansa rolled up the list, singing softly to herself.
Perhaps they would be allowed to marry in the Godswood.
‘Lady Sansa, I urge you to reconsider – this is highly irregular –’
‘I have considered at some length, my lord,’ said Sansa, ‘and my decision has been made.’
‘Well, mayhaps, but we little expected this. The Hound is hardly a suitable match!’
‘You clearly deemed him suitable when you wrote the list, Lord Blackfyre.’
‘And I begin to think I ought to write another one! Do you mean to insult House Blackfyre, Lady Sansa?’
‘Indeed not, my lord,’ said Sansa calmly. ‘No more than you meant to insult House Stark.’
‘I understand you are feeling somewhat unflattered by the options presented, Lady Sansa,’ said Lord Varys, casting a quelling look at the indignant Lord Blackfyre, ‘but may I suggest that you consider your own future? Do you really wish to bind yourself to a creature such as the Hound? Whatever slight the list may have caused was unintended, I can assure you. If this is how you seek to retaliate, I can promise that marrying the Hound will hurt you far more than it hurts us.’
‘Lord Varys speaks truly,’ said Lord Blackfyre. ‘Please allow us to present you with another list, Lady Sansa, with a more appropriate selection of suitors. And in the meanwhile, why not spend a little more time with Prince Aegon? It would be well to become more acquainted with him before you refuse him entirely.’
‘You gave your word that my choice would be upheld, Lord Blackfyre,’ she said sweetly, ‘and I choose Sandor Clegane.’
One light curtsy, and she took her leave. Walking back to her chambers, she caught sight of the King sparring in the courtyard. He really was very handsome, and quite quick with a sword. When he saw Sansa watching, he smiled and waved her over. Pretending to misunderstand his gesture, she nodded demurely and continued on her way.
If he had wanted her, he would have been at the meeting.
Petyr was not best pleased.
‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’ he demanded. ‘You could have been Queen, Sansa. Failing that, you could have married a man who would have been your husband in name if not in deed, who would have treated you with perfect respect at all times, and who would have had me to deal with if he ever broke our agreement. Do you know what it took me to secure Ser Calder’s name on that list?’
‘No, my lord,’ said Sansa, ‘as I didn’t ask you to put it there.’
‘I was acting in your best interests, as I always have! Listen, sweetling –’
‘Apart from when we were last in King’s Landing,’ said Sansa.
Petyr frowned. ‘What do you mean? I arranged your escape, Sansa. I took you away from Joffrey and the Imp and brought you to the Eyrie. No place could have been safer for you.’
‘I was safe with Tyrion,’ said Sansa. ‘He didn’t hurt me. He did his best to protect me from Joffrey and stop him from beating me.’
Just like the Hound.
‘And the situation would have been much the same with Ser Calder!’ said Petyr. ‘Sansa, whatever game you think you’re playing, I advise you to let me in on it. By the gods, what do you think you’re going to get out of this?’
‘A husband,’ said Sansa innocently.
‘He’ll be no fit husband, I can tell you that. You would be safe with Ser Calder, I would make sure of it, but I cannot protect you from the Hound. He’s more beast than man, I thought you knew that. Mark my words, Sansa. He will hurt you.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Sansa, smiling. Petyr looked unnerved, uncertain. That was all to the good.
The Hound came to find her that same evening. Sansa had been quite expecting it; had in fact chosen to go for a lengthy evening stroll around the Godswood and the castle gardens to give him ample opportunity to stumble upon her in some dark corner. It was on the serpentine steps that he found her and, quite predictably, seized her around the upper arm and dragged her into an alcove. It seemed his manners were unchanged by his time as a penitent. Sansa’s heart was beating so quickly that she could scarcely find it in her to mind.
‘Good evening, my lord,’ she said, and looked him directly in the face.
It was nearly as difficult to meet his gaze as she remembered. His burns were as raw and ugly as ever, his height and bulk undiminished though Sansa knew she had grown taller. And, much like the last time he had been this close to her, Sandor Clegane was completely beside himself.
His breathing was heavy, his eyes wide and furious. The hand that wasn’t clenched tight around her arm was grabbing alarmingly at his hair. His entire body vibrated with a tension Sansa knew not how to soothe, any more than she had known when she last spoke with him six years ago.
‘Have you lost your bloody wits, girl?’ he snarled, and his harsh voice was all at once familiar and jarring. She was twelve years old all over again, her fragile bird bones pinned to the palm of his hand, and she had to trust that he wouldn’t clench his fist and crush her.
‘I don’t believe so, my lord,’ said Sansa.
‘I’ll be the judge of that. What in the seven hells do you think you’re doing?’
‘Merely as I was bid, my lord. It is good to speak with you again.’
‘Is it! The little bird wanted some attention from the ugly dog, did she? Well, now that you’ve made me break my vow of silence you had better have good cause.’
Sansa narrowed her eyes at him. ‘I don’t believe that you took a vow of silence.’ You like talking too much.
‘So you remember that much, do you? What else is hidden away in that pretty little head of yours? But you have the right of it. I’m as like to take a vow of silence as I am to go along with whatever scheme you and Littlefinger have cooked up together.’
‘Scheme?’ echoed Sansa.
‘Yes, scheme,’ he rasped, gripping her tighter, almost shaking her. ‘I’ve had the eunuch slink into my rooms, whispering in my ear that you are to be my bloody wife. So tell me now what Littlefinger’s planning for you, little bird, and tell it true. I’ll know if you don’t.’
‘Petyr isn’t planning anything,’ said Sansa. ‘Except perhaps to wed me to Ser Calder, I suppose, but I shouldn’t like that.’ Her gaze was drawn to his broad, muscled shoulders, wrapped in an ugly brown cloak. ‘Would you like a new cloak for the wedding, my lord? I could embroider your house sigil. It would look very handsome.’
‘What wedding?’ roared the Hound. He shoved her roughly backwards until she was flush against the wall, his trembling hands tight about her arms, his eyes livid and wild. ‘I’ll have some sense from you if I have to bleed it out drip by drip! Where in the seven hells has this bloody fool idea come from?’
‘The list, of course!’ retorted Sansa, trying to pull her arms free from his painful grasp. ‘Your name is on there, my lord, clear as day, so I don’t know why you’re so surprised. You must have known this was possible.’
Finally freeing one arm, Sansa reached into her sleeve to produce the offending document.
‘There,’ she said. ‘They offered me my choice of husband, and I took it.’
The Hound snatched the list from her hand and glared at it. Sansa watched him. It had always been easier to look on him when his gaze wasn’t directed at her. She decided he was more handsome than she had given him credit for. The burns were as gruesome as ever, but she rather liked the hook of his nose and the sharp cheekbones. His lips were harsh and thin, but she remembered the way they had pressed down against hers, and a rosy warmth bloomed in her cheeks.
He crumpled the paper in his fist.
‘They mean to trap you,’ he muttered. ‘They could have warned me they planned to make me a part of this bloody buggering game.’
Sansa’s heart fell. ‘You – you didn’t know?’
‘Of course I bloody didn’t. You think I’d agree to torture you like this? My name is there to insult you, little bird. A jape. The pretty little Stark girl, highborn as they come, wed to the worthless dog who stood by and watched while they beat her? You’d be best off marrying Fossoway. At least he’ll be dead soon. His cock is like to be dead already. Or why not the pretty young prince? I’ve watched you walking with him. You could be Queen, just as you were meant to be. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’
‘No, I wouldn’t,’ said Sansa quietly. She pressed her lips together and dropped her gaze to the floor, unable to face him any longer. Everything was ruined, and just when it had all been so lovely.
‘No,’ rasped the Hound. ‘The little bird decided she wanted to be married to me, when she still can’t look me in the eye. You tell me now what in the seven hells you’re doing, girl. You think to mock me?’ He was shaking worse than ever. ‘You never used to be cruel.’
‘I’m not cruel!’ said Sansa. She forced herself to meet his eye once more. ‘My lord, this is no jape. I beg you to believe me.’
‘It’s a jape all right. You think I would make a fit husband? You want to share your rooms with me? Your bed? If we were wed, little bird, you would have to look into my face every morning and night until the end of your days. You’d give me your body, too. I’d fuck you proper, if you were my wife. What do you think of that?’
‘I…’ Her stomach was fizzing and she felt hot all over. The Hound sneered, seemingly ready to leave her. Sansa lifted a hand to cup his cheek, and stopped him in his tracks.
‘I thought you wanted me,’ she whispered, and watched his eyes widen. ‘I know you care nothing for my claim, but you have always helped me anyway. I have thought of you often. I thought you would keep me safe, and kiss me, and I would sing for you whenever you wished it. I thought I could finally be free of Petyr, and that perhaps someday we could go back to see Winterfell. I would… I would be a good wife, my lord.’
Sandor Clegane stared at her, his expression utterly unreadable.
‘Little bird,’ he murmured at long last, ‘I know you would.’
These gentle words were so unexpected that Sansa could not help but smile. Unbidden, her fingers stroked his cheek, and he drew closer.
‘You thought of kissing me?’ he said hoarsely. His gaze was flickering rapidly between her eyes and her lips. She nodded. He smelled much better than last time; cleaner, and without a trace of wine on him. He came nearer still. Sansa did not quite know what to do with herself. He had kissed her before, of course he had, and yet somehow it hadn’t prepared her for the overwhelming closeness of him, the furious fixation of his eyes upon her face. The sheer size of him, walling her in. The painful red burns, and the bone of his jaw. He is only flesh and blood and bone, just like me, she told herself, and yet it hardly seemed possible that the two of them could be made from the same material. At least this time there is no dagger.
A shaky breath fluttered from her mouth and kissed at his; he closed his eyes, looking angry even now. Sansa became suddenly aware of light footsteps heading down the steps. It seemed the Hound heard it at the same time, and the two of them fumbled apart.
It was Lord Varys.
‘Good evening, Lady Sansa,’ he said, bowing to her. He cast the Hound an arch look. ‘Clegane.’
‘Varys,’ muttered the Hound.
‘Good evening, my lord,’ said Sansa demurely, though she could feel that her cheeks were pink. She had never been able to hear Lord Varys approach before, particularly from such a distance, and wondered if he had been louder on purpose. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to witness what had been about to happen. It was probably all to the good that they had been stopped, although the Hound seemed more agitated than ever.
‘You look to have made your decision then, Clegane,’ said Lord Varys. ‘I admit, when you requested time to think, I had thought that you might want longer than two hours… but I suppose the Lady Sansa’s powers of persuasion are more compelling than my own.’
‘The girl did no persuading,’ said the Hound. ‘It’s a pretty little offer. I had to make sure she meant it.’
‘Does she?’ asked Lord Varys, watching her.
‘Seems to,’ said the Hound darkly.
‘And do you accept?’
Sandor Clegane glared, first at Lord Varys and then at her. Sansa met his gaze, trying her best to look appealing as her heart pounded hard in her chest. She knew he was itching to grab her, interrogate her, threaten her, perhaps kiss her – all the things he couldn’t do while anyone else looked on. Please say yes. She didn’t know what she would do if he refused her.
Eventually the tension in his body seemed to give out, and he sagged against the wall, fists finally unclenched.
‘Seven bloody hells,’ he said, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘Why not? I accept. Bugger me if I know why.’
He stalked off down the steps, laughing harshly. Sansa hoped that meant he was happy. Trying to compose her features into their usual neutral mask, she looked at Lord Varys. The expression on his face was quite plain in its meaning.
Rather you than me.