This is how it begins:
She flowers when she is fourteen. He knows this because his tiny sister, the one a girl calls the waif, tells him. She bled in the night, she says, wide dark eyes blinking up at him meaningfully. Your girl has become a woman, brother.
It is incongruous to him; a girl who tries very hard not to be Arya Stark has always been small so long as he has known her, and though her wants and wishes, her goals in life, have never quite matched her stature or the norm of her sex she has still always seemed so strangely innocent and childlike in certain ways. A girl playing at a mouse, a ghost, a wolf, no one. Impatient. Impetuous. Desperate to please and denying it all the while. A mind and body made for steel, not silk. Still, biology does not lie, and when a man steals into her room while she is training with her own brothers and sees the truth of her maturity upon the sheets, he knows that a change must come to her. After all, steel wrapped in silk is still steel, and a cloth-bound blade can still cut.
When next they train together, she is noticeably taxed by the exertion, more distracted than normal; she bends slowly, twists gingerly, winces harder when their staves meet to clatter. He disarms her, she collects her weapon once more with a huff, and he uses his staff to correct her posture. “Higher,” he says, pressing the wood longways into the small of her back until her spine straightens and her shoulders rise. “Looser,” he says, tapping at her elbows until she relaxes them and they are not so rigid. “Looser still,” he says, prodding her hand until her white-knuckled grip on her own staff becomes gentler, more a caress than a clutch. “Eyes closed,” he says, and her grey eyes shut obediently. She has been given back her sight, but sometimes she falls into old habits and relies upon them too much to truly see. “Again,” he says, and again they dance.
Too quickly he once more disarms her. Even taking into account her feminine pains, she is too sloppy. She's not paying attention. “Enough,” he says, and raises an eyebrow when she lifts her head to argue. After a moment she complies. “Your thoughts are not in this room,” he tells her simply, and takes both their staves to return to the armory. “Go and work in the kitchens. A girl returns to this room tomorrow, and she will bring her thoughts with her.”
She goes and works in the kitchens. She serves the table at meal and listens to all of the Masters speak, but she will not meet his eyes. They return to the room the next day. He disarms her far too soon again. Her face screws up in annoyance, her shoulders tight and drawn, prepared to rally against a rebuke that doesn’t come when he circles her thoughtfully, asks instead, “Who are you?”
She blinks, not expecting the question. “No one,” she says, too late and too quickly, too defensive. He strikes his staff against her knuckles. He cannot be kind when kindness does not benefit her.
“You lie. What are you thinking?”
“Nothing.” Another strike, at her thigh.
“You lie. What has upset you?”
“Nothing.” Another strike, at her hip.
“You lie.” She lets out a soft hiss of pain and he pauses in his circuit around her, viewing her in profile.
She is small, yes, but her breasts are budding, her face losing the softness of youth. He has only ever known her to be gaunt, far too much time spent being underfed when her body needed sustenance to grow, but since coming to Braavos and the bounty of the House she’d gained back some of the puppy fat that a child her age would have, were they not her. Puppy fat on a child settles more leanly on a woman. He is not sure he will ever be able to imagine her as anything more than a girl, but he can see how time has worked itself upon her body.
He raises his staff again and sees her tense in preparation for another strike, and then he sees the startled look of question when instead he tucks the point of it to the underside of a breast and raises it lightly. It is more acknowledgement of her sex than he has ever given her beyond calling her a lovely girl, more than she has received from anyone by way of touch. The physicality of it is a different sort of understanding of her femininity than growing up being told she was female and knowing it, logically, to be so. He wonders how much thought she herself has given to her changing body.
“Jaqen?” she asks, a fearful sort of betrayal in her voice; she yelps, unprepared, when he drops his staff to strike at her shin.
“Jaqen is dead,” he reminds her. “Arya Stark knew Jaqen, and he is dead and she is gone. Who am I?”
“No one,” she says, both sullen and confused; a familiar exchange, with an unfamiliar start.
“Just so. And who are you?”
“No one.” Instead of a strike, he lifts his staff, trailing it from her shin; up, to her knee; up, to her thigh; up, to the womanly center of her, and rests it between her legs. Her expression is worried, her eyes wide, her mouth parted nervously. He cocks his head at her. If her response had been pleasure he could have left it there, but now he knows the base of this act to truly be fear. “What are you doing?”
He hums. “A girl must lose her virginity,” he decides, and nods to himself. Her eyes widen further and she takes a step back.
He takes her staff from her hands; her grip is weak and pliant. He throws both his and hers down to the floor. He must teach her now, and this is not the lying game. He sits upon the ground and gestures for her to join him, and after a moment, cautious and confused, she does.
“How do we serve Him of Many Faces?” he asks. She says nothing, just waits, and he shakes his head at her. It is not rhetorical.
“We give the gift,” she answers finally. “Valar morghulis.”
“Valar morghulis,” he agrees. “How do we give the gift?”
She settles slowly, more comfortable now that she is being taught, now that he is not threatening her body or touching it in new and uncomfortable ways. “With daggers and swords,” she says. “With poison. With rope and chain, and bow and arrow. With shadows.”
“With our wit,” he continues. “Our minds, our words. We give the gift in security, in secret, in succor. We are no one, unseen. To give the gift, we must use all parts of us for Him of Many Faces. All parts. A girl’s body must be a weapon, and she must know all it's secret places, all the edges of it, sharp and blunt alike.”
Her faces colors in indignation. “A girl’s body is a weapon,” she argues, leaning towards him angrily. He leans in as well, reaches out towards her before she can follow the movement, and grips her chin in a hand. Her eyes widen, her muscles freeze, as he pushes his thumb between her lips and presses it against her tongue, the soft surface of her palate. She stares at him, unmoving, a flush rising on her cheeks, and holds her breath as with his other hand he pushes the point of a dagger drawn from the lining of his sleeve into her stomach.
He nods. “A girl’s body is a weapon. But you must learn to weild it, before it is turned against you.”
In Westeros, he knows, at her age she would be auctioned off, were she any other highborn girl freshly flowered. She would be found a lord husband with the most advantageous match and her maidenhead would be bought and paid for and she would breed whelps until her woman’s parts withered and dried as all flowers eventually must. In Westeros, she would have been raised under the belief that nothing made her more valuable, nothing of her had more worth, than her virtue; a virtue that would be taken from her by the man with the most gold and titles that she could be traded for, and that only if she were lucky. It could be taken by force as well, torn violently from her girlish grip. So long as she holds that belief, so long as she fears the loss of that incorporeal virtue, it can be used against her, and her girl’s body that was a weapon becomes a woman’s body that is a weakness. He removes his hand from her face, pulls his thumb from her mouth. It’s wet with her saliva and the air is cool against it.
“Lose your virginity,” he says again. “It is a concept only. Lose your maidenhead. It is just flesh. The loss takes nothing from you that you do not allow it to take. Do it on your own terms, but soon. Someday you will be told to give the gift to someone who may require pleasure before they can be made to accept it. We serve Him of Many Faces with all parts of us, and if a girl truly wishes to become a master within our Order she must use all parts of herself to do it, even those parts she considers most private. Valar dohaeris.”
“All men must serve,” she intones. Her eyes are dull and downcast, a flush still on her cheeks. He has told her something she does not wish to hear, but he has not let himself fall in a habit of being kind if it will not benefit her.
“Faceless men most of all.”
“Have you, ah-- Have you had to sleep with someone before?” she asks, biting her lip. He watches her fumble with the words, amused; she can speak about it, at least. Though she cannot meet his eye when she does. “To give the gift, I mean?”
He nods. “Yes. It happens, occasionally. There are those of us in the Order who are more comfortable with the obligation and those of us who are less so, just as there are those of us with more proficiency with swords than with throwing knives, but our flesh is His to use to deliver His will as He sees fit.”
Her voice is small, and she curls in on herself where she sits. She is flowered and grown but here, here he sees only that angry lovely girl in Harrenhal, skinny and dirty and fearful and vicious in her fear. He gave her bravery, where he could. “Must I really do this?”
He will not be kind if it does not benefit her. “You must,” he says, gentle but firm. “So long as you fear the possibility, it rules over you. A maidenhead is nothing but a scrap of flesh, and a girl has done bloodier work.”
“Fear cuts deeper than swords,” she whispers to herself quietly. He leans back, to give her the illusion of space. “All men are made of water.”
“Just so,” he agrees.
“Could you do it?” she asks suddenly, head raising up to look at him. He blinks at her. Unexpected. “I trust you. It wouldn’t be so bad, I think, if it were you.”
He considers it. He could. She is pleasing to see, when she is fighting, when she is angry, when she is proud or self-assured; when she is a wolf. He could touch her flesh, and find his pleasure in it, and he could help her find her own pleasure too. It could be easy, and simple: a transaction, a lesson between Master and Apprentice. It is not unheard of, though not necessarily encouraged within the Order, and often only when the novice is older than she, or has been in service longer. But then, rare indeed is a female novice. It would allow them both some measure of control over the act, him assured of the safety of his charge and her giving something she has assigned value to to someone she values, and who would recognize that value.
He could put his mouth upon her lips, her breasts, her vagina; he could show her how blood fills certain areas of the body, how feeling congregates to specific nerves; he could enter her, please her gently and then, when the pain has passed if she is one of those women whose body finds pain in the initial act, he could teach her how rougher and harder and faster can be pleasurable too. He could taste her lips and drink of her femininity, could place her hands and mouth on his own form so that she knows where men like to be touched. He could explain how sighs and moans and the delicate arch of a spine can be as deadly as a knife, as addicting as a drug, can lull a man as easily as a drop of sweetsleep.
He could do this thing that she asks, perform this kindness she seeks. He is capable. He would even enjoy it, both for the pleasure of flesh against flesh and the softer, gentler pleasure of making her happy, keeping her safe for so long as he is able. He cares for her, such that he can, a damning thing.
But, this is what she does not know: she does not know that other Masters wear the face he favors to train her, and they see the familiarity between them. She does not know that the Order watches her closely, as aware of her inability to give up Arya Stark as he is though he has not spoken of it to his brothers. She does not know that others hear her call him Jaqen, hear her assign unto him a name, an identity, a being. She does not know the worry of his siblings; not for her, no, she has promise but is a novice only and would not be difficult to remove, not an asset too important to lose. His siblings worry for him, a man the Order has put much more time and resource into. She does not know that, since becoming No One, she is the only thing of import he has ever chosen for himself, and choice is the first and most slippery step to becoming someone.
She knows that he will not be kind if it does not benefit her; she does not know that his definition of what benefits her differs from that of his superiors and siblings, and is far more in her favor that it by rights should be. He could give her this, what she wants-- he could want it as well if he let himself, and that want is the most damning of all.
"No," he says finally, and pretends not to see the way she slumps in disappointment, as if a weight upon her shoulders she'd assumed would be lifted has settled even heavier. "We are too familiar already. It breeds contempt, and both these things are of no use to No One." He leans forward and sets a hand on her arm, and she looks up at him with sad grey eyes. Her bottom lip is between her teeth and he reaches out once more and sets his thumb against it, pulling it free. "When your moonblood has passed I will find you a courtesan, a learned man with gentle hands." Her face screws up disdainfully and he smiles, charmed as ever by her petulance. "A mark, then? Perhaps it will be easier, to give this gift of yourself to someone to whom you will give the gift after."
This seems to be more to her preference. Her eyes unfocus, aimed somewhere over his shoulder as she contemplates it. Then she nods determinedly. " Gentle hands. Bah. What use have I of gentle hands? Give me a dead man’s name. I will give him the gift of death afterwards and it will be done. Behind me.”
"It will be done," he agrees. He feels… unduly displeased by this, despite knowing its necessity. Truly, she will no longer be his lovely girl after. That was always the goal, he supposes, to create and build a creature of death, to nurture the potential within her, to teach her what kind of woman she can become. Still. It is a loss to them both and he mislikes it, though one he knows she will feel much more keenly than he himself will.
"I wish I were not a girl," she says, looking down to where his hand still rests on her arm, skin against skin. "It makes everything so unnecessarily difficult."
"But you are not a girl," he tells her gently, "and I am not a man. Who are we?"
"No One," she says softly, dutifully. He does not strike her for the lie.
Three days later they are training and she moves faster, quicker, more fluidly; when they are finished he inclines his head towards her midsection and she nods in unspoken answer to his unspoken question. Her moonblood has passed, and it is time.
"He is named Alesso Notyne," he tells her. "He keeps the books for one of the brothels near the Moon Pool. His master has found him skimming more than his fair portion of earnings. He is not unkind to women."
"Only stupid to work," she says, and then sighs. "How am I to give the gift?"
A flash of humor, rare between them these days as her training becomes more intense: "Typically a girl spreads her legs, but a man believes you can be as imaginative as you like." She gasps in offense and swings a fist at him that he blocks and swats away easily. He bows his head in apology for the jape. "The method is at your discretion. A man suggests poison, but only delivery of death was requested, not a specific package for the delivery."
She nods, the sour expression leftover from his joke slipping away from her like sand between opened fingers, replaced by trepidation. There is far too much Arya Stark in her voice when she asks quietly, and with an air of defeat as if she already knows the answer, "Are you sure it can't be you?"
"It could," he says, and then with gentle finality, "but it shouldn't. Go. Valar morghulis."
"Valar dohaeris," she returns, eyes low.
He stops her, an indulgence, sinful and sweet. "Lovely girl." She turns to look at him, curious. Hopeful. A man named Jaqen called Arya Stark such, once. "There is a place within you where you are safe and warm and you cannot be touched by the world beyond. Go to that place inside, when you must." She nods slowly.
He watches her leave, and sighs to himself once she is gone.
She comes back the next morning, flushed and gaze averted and looking much the same as she had the day before, but he knows the loss of a maidenhead does not magically change the countenance. It is said that upon losing maidenhood, a woman becomes a hungry creature, craving only more manflesh, especially if her maidenhood is lost out of wedlock. This girl looks more embarrassed mouse than lusty lady. He gives her moontea with a solemn nod, and she drinks it without a moment of hesitation. They continue training; languages, a concession to potential womanly pain that may carry over with her from the exertions of the night before. It is only partially favoritism on his part. Her Valyrian needs work.
"There was no blood," she ventures after some time. "In Westeros, a lord's family would be presented with the bloodied sheets of the marriage bed. As proof." There is a question in her statement, one that she does not know how to phrase.
"We require no such thing in this House. We judge not blood." He hums thoughtfully. "Arya Stark had rode horses since she was a small girl, had she not?"
"She did." She sounds wistful. A girl thinking of her own past, not No One contemplating the history of another. It isn't a lie , not truly, but quick as a snake he raps her knuckles with the hilt of the dagger he hides within his sleeves. When she glares at him he meets her gaze and holds it, his expression sharp. He will not be kind when it does not benefit her. After a moment her eyes lower, supplicant.
When she has quieted once more, a girl who is a wolf whose throat is bared, he speaks again. "Perhaps when Arya Stark was a child she bled her maidenhead upon a saddle and did not realize."
"Then that whole exercise was for naught?" she growls, barely restraining a seethe, a snarling beast once more. Her fists clench in her lap and she chews on her lip, eyebrows pulled down.
“It was necessary,” he reminds her simply.
She turns her face from him, teeth bared, and when he sighs quietly in disappointment at her she snaps, “Fuck you.”
It is damning. Were it any of his brothers wearing his face to receive this treatment, this blatant disregard, even he could not protect her from the ire of the Order. There is too much to her in this moment, too much within her filled with Arya Stark, and she is lucky that it is only he with a fondness for her who witnesses it. He can forgive her outbursts to an extent, knowing the difficulty of the task he’d given her, but after that extent no more. Kindness only when it benefits her; and cruelty, when that benefits her too.
"Rule your face," he commands, but when he draws his dagger again to reprimand her she catches it, rips it from him. The blade slices open his palm and blood drips to the floor between them. They both freeze and stare at her hand, gripping the hilt, damning.
He will remember this moment, later. He will look back on it through the lense of hindsight and with the terrible knowledge of what comes to pass from it. He will mourn it. This is the moment where he first understands, truly, that Arya Stark can never become No One. She will never be able to put aside the proud wolf, and the proud wolf's hunger for blood. She can be nothing but what she is, and she is a Stark.
But that is later, and this is now-- she releases the dagger, slowly, as if unsure of how to correct her grievous violation. It drops the short distance to the ground, lands in the smattering of blood. It has been some time since she has had to be beaten into submission, and neither of them have wished to return to such contention. Cruelty, when it benefits her.
He flexes his hand, contemplates the wound. It does not even hurt truly, nearly surgical; he is in the habit of keeping his blades sharp. It will pain him more when it begins to scab. After a moment he holds it out for her to see. "Here is your blood," he tells her, toneless.
She drops her head, hands placed on her knees, back bent and shoulders slumped. Prostrate. "Forgive me. Please. I was angry."
"When will you learn," he sighs, "that nothing you are told is for naught? When will you learn to trust your Master? That he wants for you to succeed and the things he tells you to do are to push you towards that success? A man had thought that you would trust him enough to listen, if you had trusted his coin to take you across the sea. Perhaps you should have stayed in Westeros with Arya Stark. Perhaps you should go back to her now, if she waits so shallowly below your surface. My coin got you here, it can take you back. Tell this man if you wish this thing, and I will book you a ship tomorrow."
She flinches. "Please." She reaches for his hand, takes it in her own, turns until his bloody palm faces her and then kisses it, just above the cut. "Forgive me. Please."
It hurts. His breath catches. He thinks to the days before, where she had asked if he could perform the task of taking her maidenhead. He had denied her. He had believed it to be the right thing to do, the best thing for her. He still believes that now. Comfort cannot come above progress. But… If she had said to him then this thing she says now, please, with his blood upon her lips, he does not know that he could have maintained that denial. Damning. Damning, damning.
"We are done with languages," he murmurs; they have not been speaking Valyrian since they began discussing her maiden's blood. "A girl goes to serve in the kitchen. Tomorrow she washes the bodies and reorganizes the armory. The next day she will dust the front chambers and sweep the halls."
"She will," she promises. Her lips move against his skin. His palm is still held to her mouth. "Valar dohaeris. She serves. She trusts her Master. She is No One."
"You lie," he says. "Go. Valar morghulis."
"Valar dohaeris," she whispers again, and rises. His hand falls away from her own. She bows deeply, eyes still downcast, and leaves.
When she is gone he takes himself in his hand, the one that is not injured, as he has not in many moons. He imagines it.
Her beneath him, against him, around him; warm, wet, maiden-tight. Squeezing. Gasping. Her eyes shut in pained ecstasy. Her breasts, small, straining upwards with each heaving breath as he moved within her. He would kiss her there, between them, and again on her pink nipples, and on the pale undersides. He would put his thumb back between her lips to touch her tongue again; he would put his thumb between her lower lips and touch her there until her womanhood grew as wet as her mouth. He would take her fingers in his own and press them against the soft core of her, watch her touch herself with his instruction, and when she had soaked their fingers he would press them against the hard mast of him and instruct her in that as well. He wonders if she would listen to him as intently in this as she does when they train with weapons. He wonders if the dead man made her peak when she gave him her girlish gift. He wonders how fast he himself could make her fall apart, and how many times before she begged for rest. He wonders if she would let him put his mouth on her afterwards, if he would taste her maiden's blood upon her skin the way she had tasted his upon his own. He wonders how far inside of her he would reach, how deep she would draw him into her, how full of himself and his seed he could make her. She is small. He is not. He wonders if he would be able to see the shape of himself within her. He comes. His spend cools quickly, shameful, on his hand.
Yes, he will think on this moment later and mourn.
(This is what he does not know:
Alesso Notyne kisses with skill but invokes little passion, and her mind wanders boredly as his hands trail down her body. He was easy, too easy; but she supposes he works in a brothel and he is likely used to having to pay for female attention, and the prospect of having a young and nubile woman in his bed for free was too good to pass up. She only had to tilt her head and smile, to lift her skirts high enough to flash a pale thigh at him the way she has seen the whores do, to get his attention.
The vial of sweetsleep presses against her stomach from where it rests within the hidden pocket sewn sloppily into the side of her gown, a quick alteration she’d made to the silk monstrosity she’d pilfered from the House’s storeroom of clothing donated by the dead. She wonders, briefly, what befell the courtesan who had worn this gown to find the comfort of death in the poisoned pools of her temple. It matters not. The dead are dead still even if she wears their clothes and their faces and their names. She will do this deed that her hateful Master has charged her with, lose herself of this responsibility of gender that she did not ask for, and afterwards when Alesso has sated himself of her flesh she will sate another thirst with a goblet of wine. And the dead man will have a very sweet sleep indeed.
Alesso kisses down her neck, sucking and biting at her skin. She wonders if she is supposed to find such an act pleasurable, the way the whores in Wintertown seemed to whenever Theon visited them. Then again, she’d heard of their pleasure in his touch from the man himself, hiding in corners and closets when he would tell Robb about such things, and maybe his opinion on their want of his touch is skewed. Perhaps no woman finds pleasure in this game. Perhaps her lady mother merely tolerated the touch of her lord father on her skin for the love Catelyn had borne the man in her heart. Or, perhaps, she is alone in her boredom, the lack of ardor in her breast; perhaps she is broken. Sansa had always said she was ugly, perhaps she is so ugly that her body simply cannot comprehend the supposed beauty in the union of flesh.
Alesso bites the top of her breast through the silk, hard enough that her skin will bruise. She winces. Gods, this is tedious. She tries to imagine another in his place, thinking that maybe if there were a visage more pleasing in front of her then that fire she feels at the center of her thighs that ignites some nights when she is in her cell alone will spark here. She has a task, and she doesn’t want to disappoint Jaqen, and she even understands the need for it though she mislikes it. She is bored but better a boring bedding than a forced one. She’d rather this than a rape. And it is comforting, more comforting than she’d expected, to know that he will be dead by the night’s end-- comforting too to know that in doing this she will have ruined herself for marriage, and will not have to face the prospect of laying with a man she doesn’t care for nightly, or until she quickens. But gods she also doesn’t want to just stare at a ceiling while some dead fool ruts between her legs. Better if she can find some pleasure, too.
She draws up a mental picture of Jaqen, his wicked smile when he was still open enough with her to smile so, the long slope of his body in the baths at Harrenhal, the intensity of his gaze when he imparts wisdom to her. But the scent is wrong, and the shape too; Alesso smells of wine and incense and is too short and compact to stand in for her Master. And it is strange, too, to try to think of Jaqen like this. Maybe once, when he was not her Master; maybe when she was a ghost and he her bravery that walked beside her. But now it feels… just strange. She trusts Jaqen, thinks that this night would end more happily for her if he had just agreed to take her maidenhead and be done with it, but she thinks it would have been less about passion and more impartial than the songs her sister used to love, the stories her mother would tell her of the way a man should make her feel. A lesson only perhaps, but one she would be satisfied to learn. She banishes Jaqen from her mind and tries to think of another.
The dead man is far too short for her to pretend he is Gendry, who even just past the cusp of boyhood had been tremendous. And besides, thinking of some stupid smith boy will only get her heated in anger, not lust.
And… that’s it, really. She supposes there is no other man she could contemplate desiring. Damn.
Staring at the ceiling it is, then.
Alesso pinches her thigh through the silk of her gown and she hears, as if from a distance, her Master’s voice within her head. There is a place within you where you are safe and warm and you cannot be touched by the world beyond. If she cannot find pleasure in this act, then perhaps that place will bring her some instead. She closes her eyes and searches.
That place is Winterfell, and a forge at Acorn Hall, and on the road beside the Hound as she rides a craven horse she stole with a sword that had been stolen from her now reclaimed, and the room she trains in with her Master that smells of ginger and cloves. That place has Father and Mother, and Jon, Robb and Sansa and Bran and Rickon; that place has her family. It has Jaqen, and the Hound, and a blue-eyed smith’s apprentice who she almost hates more than she loves but who is still hers. It has Syrio, and Nymeria, Nymeria, Nymeria-- that place has safety and warmth and love, oh love.
And better than love, for that place too has death, that place has Cersei's head displayed above the mantle, it has the Mountain’s blood dripping into the floorboards, it has Meryn Trant hung from the rafters. It has a carpet of red Lannister cloaks and a feast of Frey food for guest’s rights, a Bolton’s flayed skin tacked onto the wall and a dried Greyjoy kraken suspended from the ceiling and holding torches as a chandelier. That place has all she loves and all she hates and it has her, victorious, a vicious wolf pacing, watching over it all, protecting her pack.
Alesso Notyne slips his hand between her thighs and touches her most intimate place. The cupping hand, the questing fingers, pressing between the lips of her womanly cleft, startles her abruptly, drags her without warning from that place inside her; instinctively, Arya Stark takes the paring knife from the platter of fruit abandoned on the bedside table and sinks it into Alesso’s left eye. He jerks twice in a spray of blood and a guttural moan that she mutes as much as she can by pulling him to her body, smothering his face against the fabric of her gown. He quiets quickly, though the spasms continue, as does the blood.
“Fuck,” Arya whispers, holding the dead man to her breast. His limp body pushes the hidden sweetsleep against her like an accusation. “Fuck.”
She takes off her gown and the blood-soaked bed sheets, washes herself with the basin of cold water provided for the feminine cleaning necessary after sex. She stares at the soiled silk and linen, sopping with blood. My maidenblood, she thinks, and nearly laughs.
She wraps the corpse in the fabric, bundles and ties it at either end. The room is an exterior one, and overlooks the canal; she has no rocks available so she weighs the bundle down with a few heavy books tucked beneath the dead man’s feet. She waits until the night has passed into very early morning, when even the whores of the building have quit their business, and throws the wrapped remains of the dead man out the window and into the canal. Should Jaqen ever see the body, he would know instantly that it isn’t the careful work of No One, but the feral snarling rebuke of Arya Stark. Her Master knows her too well and is too clever by half. She can only hope that the eels of the canal dispose of the body for her before the books dissolve and it floats to the surface with bloat.
There are spare clothes in the drawers within the room, simple and inelegant things made for the comfort of sleep. She shrugs into them and climbs out the window herself, scaling the side of the building carefully until she can reach a bridge over the canal with her toes. On swift and silent feet Arya Stark, still a maid, returns to the House of Black and White. When she returns to her cell she collapses in exhaustion, and dreams of running on wolf’s paws, her breath hot behind her teeth and tasting of blood.
Her Master, too clever perhaps but still just a man, does not question her assumed lack of maidenhood. Sometimes she thinks that he cares for her too much, to accept her word in this matter without dispute; sometimes she thinks that he cares for her not at all. It could have been you, she thinks to him when he corrects her pronunciation of poisons in Valyrian. Maybe I’d have felt something, if it were you. Maybe I'd have wanted it, maybe I'd have not failed the task, if it had been you. But it wasn’t him.
Perhaps, considering everything that happens after, that is for the best.
(Later, much later, when Braavos is far to the East and she has left her Master behind, her skin is heated by the fire of a forge and the fire of a smith’s skin, and Gendry sighs her name reverently into her neck, Arya Arya Arya. She still hates him almost as much as she loves him, but only almost, and they will both die tomorrow, and she sort of wants to see what all the fuss is about.
It’s alright. A pleasant distraction. There are certainly worse ways to spend her last night alive. It is not so terrible as a Faceless Master had led her to believe, once; there is no change in her dark heart, no spectacular shift in how she views the world around her. She feels no more or less woman than she did hours before. She could see herself doing it again. She doesn’t, though, at least not with him. They don't die somehow. Somehow. But he’s a Lord now, and he loves her though she understands not how, and he would have her be his Lady.
And that’s not her.
She’s not really sure what she is at this point. A hero. A slayer. A princess. A wolf, a ghost, a mouse. No one. No, she isn't sure, and she doesn’t know if she’ll live long enough to figure it out. But she knows it’s probably not that.))
This is what happens after she leaves, when she is not there to see:
The Masters within the Order take the Master of the renegade Apprentice aside.
“She took faces from the Hall, brother,” one tells him. Damning.
“She killed our sister,” a second reminds him. Damning.
“You allowed her to leave,” a third accuses him. Damning.
“She knows the rites to use them, as all Apprentices do, and so they are hers to employ as Him of Many Faces wills. Valar dohaeris. If He is offended then He can easily prevent their use,” he says to the first. Damning. “It was a test for the both of them. Valar morghulis. I cannot be blamed that our sister failed, nor should I be faulted for the Apprentice I'd trained for success succeeding,” he says to the second. Damning. “She was not going to be No One, but Arya Stark has a destiny. I did my best to prepare her for it. I did not allow myself to be kind if it was not to her benefit,” he says to the third. Damning.
“She stole names and faces from the Many Faced God,” the first presses. Damning.
“It was a test for all three of you, and all three of you failed,” the second sighs. Damning.
“You have profaned us, and yourself,” the third murmurs. Damning.
He is sequestered within the House for many moons while the Order determines how best to deal with him, how best to deal with the creature he has created who wears the identity of Arya Stark. He does the serving work of novices; dusting and sweeping, cleaning the bodies. It could be galling, but he does not let himself have too much pride. His soul is sick for lack of purpose, though, for giving the gift is all he has known. He questions his own decisions, from giving a lovely girl three names and then a coin, to seeing his sister’s face bloody upon the wall and letting a wolf stalk free after she’d pressed a needle to his chest. He has had nothing in his life but death, and for a brief moment a dark haired, dark souled girl who revelled in that death.
He hears news from across the Narrow Sea in the form of rumors and stories, from the mouths of acolytes telling his estranged brothers three new things. The Dragon Queen burnt King's Landing with her children, killing everyone. The Mad Queen burnt King's Landing with her wildfire, leaving nothing. An army of wolves descended on the South. The army of the dead slaughtered the entire Western continent and even now begin to cross the frozen sea. The King in the North whose name is Stark sacrificed himself to kill the Night King. A girl called the Wolf of Dawn killed the Night King. The dragons had died in the fighting and the Dragon Queen killed herself in mourning. The Dragon Queen and the King in the North are wed and rule together in harmony. Queen Cersei and the King of the Sea are wed and rule together in harmony. The Dragon Queen went mad and the King in the North who loved her slayed her to protect the realm. The North fell to the dead, but Good Queen Cersei defended the South.
He does not ask the other Masters for the truth, because he knows he will not receive it. He waits, and serves, and prepares himself for judgement.
Much time has passed before his brother, one of the older Masters in the Order, comes to him and sits him down. With a kindly face his brother says, "We have made a decision. You were right, Arya Stark did have a destiny. She has fulfilled it. She slew the Night King, and is named Nightsbane and the Wolf of Dawn."
There is a weight that leaves his chest, his heart, his lungs. He breathes and it feels like the first breath he has drawn since Arya Stark pressed a Needle to his skin. She lives. She triumphs. He says nothing.
"Cersei Lannister is dead. Daenerys Targaryen is dead. The Seven Kingdoms are in upheaval as they recuperate from the long war. Arya Stark has vanished from the eyes of the new fledgling court, assumed to return North." His brother leans in closer. "You will find her and kill her."
He tenses. Makes eye contact. "A man knows this name. I cannot do this."
His brother smiles, kindly and sad. "You knew a boy who was a girl. You knew a mouse, a weasel. A ghost and a cat of the canals. Briefly, you knew No One. Do you know Arya Stark, brother? Do you presume to know the Nightsbane, who slew the King of the Others? The woman she has become? Perhaps you knew her, once. I do not think you know this name now."
He shakes his head, a denial, but he knows the words to be true. He tries a different tact. "Who paid for this name? Who has worth enough to buy contract to give the gift of death for Arya Stark, who you say saved Westeros?"
His brother chuckles. "You know that the Order does not always require payment for the gift, if we choose to give it freely. Her name does not have to be paid for." He stares at his brother, stares into his kindly eyes. He has known this man since he himself was a boy, learned under him and played with him the lying game. No matter the kindly face worn, he knows his brother's tells.
"No, not always," he determines. "But payment was given regardless."
His brother smiles wider, sadder. "Just so. The Order bought contract."
He scoffs, shakes his head again. "The Order doesn't have anything of high enough value to buy the life of a savior. What could we have taken from ourselves?"
But he knows: the Order does not always ask for coin, or possession. The Order asks for something of equal value to the person paying, something He of Many Faces finds a fair enough price to pay for the gift. Not coin. Not possession. Those are the things of men, and He would require something higher and dearer of the Order to kill Arya Stark, the slayer of death.
And he knows the answer before this brother says it, before he smiles, so sadly and so kindly, "We gave up a brother He favors. We gave up one of our most useful tools. We gave up a man who devoted his life to our House. We gave up you, Jaqen H'ghar."
He closes his eyes. Bows his head. The weight comes back to his chest, twofold, threefold, tenfold. An identity, a becoming, damning. A contract, bought and paid. Only death can pay for life, and her death will be the payment for the life she damned him with that he did not ask for. He knows that the Order does not mean for him to come back from this. This contract will end him, whether by her blade or after with his own. Slowly, he nods. "He will do this."
"Valar morghulis, brother."
"Valar dohaeris, brother."
A man who is No One sleeps that night. The next day he wakes, and his brothers take a knife to him; they carve a deep line into his cheek, and damn him with the face he has favored since meeting a lovely girl. Scarred such, he will be unable to pull faces from the ether and wear them as all Masters can, and the masks in the hall that Apprentices use will sit upon him poorly. This face will be his last, and none will wear it now but him. When it is done, Jaqen H'ghar rises, bleeding, and sets sail for the West. He knows that this time he will not come back.
This is the start of what they become again together:
It takes Jaqen a half-moon to cross the sea, another half-moon to find her trail and a moon again to catch her on the King's Road. Nearly three moons have passed since the dawn rose after the Long Night. Arya Stark is wounded still from the battle of King’s Landing that ended what the smallfolk now call the War of Queens and she travels alone and slowly, making poor time in her journey but leaving little behind her to track. He finds her in a natural hollow worn into the side of a hill, the opening hidden by the trunk of a leafless tree, a fire burnt low enough to do little to stave off the cold of the winter night, a black horse hobbled close. She sleeps in her traveling clothes and under a thick furred blanket, a cloak still clasped at her throat to retain heat. A set of leather armor rests discarded by her pack. She should have braved the discomfort of sleeping in it and left it on. Sloppy. He'd taught her better than that.
He allows himself a moment to watch her, an indulgence; he cannot see much of her form beneath the cloak so he cannot tell the passage time has marked upon her body, but her hair is longer and braided back in a fashion he knows to be Northern but has never seen her wear. Her possessions are scant. A pack of provisions, a spare cloak should one be rendered unusable, a quiver of arrows and a longbow that looks too big for her stature. A sword, at least one dagger. If she is clever, which he knows her to be because he drilled that cleverness into her, there are other daggers that he can't see.
There are some, he knows, whose countenance lose their worries in their sleep, some whose troubles melt from them in the comfort of the night. Arya Stark is not one of those people. She sleeps with a grimace, brows furrowed and lips drawn down, as if she fights the world even in her dreams. Her body remains still, though, calm, curled on her side and one leg pulled up slightly, the outline of her knee visible under the cloak. If her muscles jump within her limbs then her skin contains them well.
She does not look like the warrior they claim killed the Night King. She looks like an angry girl, not yet even six-and-ten. She looks like his Apprentice still, but darker, and in furs instead of cloth. How many times had she looked such in her cell at the House, and how many times had she turned that drowsy anger on him when he'd presumed to wake her? How many times had he chastised her with humor in his voice as they broke their fast before going to train? How many days, hours, minutes has he spent with her? The gift he was told to give has never felt so unwelcome.
His indulgence meets its end, before he is ready; perhaps it is some tiny creak of his leather armor, perhaps it is a shift in air pressure as the breeze passes him through the hollow, perhaps it is the soft and barely-there inhale of his lungs from one breath to the next, but she wakes suddenly, quickly and efficiently, and he must move before her dagger flies through the air. It whistles just past his ear, slicing through where his eye had been a moment before, and then he is on her.
Height and weight give him an advantage, but he had taught her how to grapple and she knows his body well, where to twist and kick and leverage to remove herself from him. Blade clashes against blade as he brings his shortsword down to meet her own thin bravos water dancing foil. He has the size, but she has the maneuverability, and with a deft curl of her abdomen she leaps to her feet, cloak snapping around her.
“Jaqen?” she asks, surprised, once she sees him in full, but that surprise does not stay her blade and she slashes around his sword towards his face. He bends backwards at the waist to fall beneath it, and the noise it makes as it cuts through the air just above his nose is threatening. She backpedals. “Wait,” she says, “stop,” but her sword doesn’t lower and neither does his. “Jaqen,” she says again, and for the first time in a long time he allows himself anger.
To hear her call him this, this name that she had damned him with, that she had assigned to him, it is nearly too much. How many times had he told her Jaqen is dead and she had insisted that to be false with her naming of him? She did this. She made him Jaqen. Jaqen is a name he could have shed as easily as any other he’d taken, this face as inconsequential to him as any other in the Hall, except that it was what she recognized him to be, and he had allowed that to matter to him. Damning. She gave him this name and he did not ask for it, and she placed affection for her into his heart and he did not ask for it, and she stole him from the Order with a contract for her death bought with his life and he did not ask for it.
Arya must see some of that anger in his expression; she backs away again, but so intent is he on giving chase that he doesn’t see the flick of her wrist. He steps sideface in time for it to miss the nape of his neck where his armor ends, but it lodges instead into his shoulder. Momentum and a keen edge punch it a handful of inches through the leather and he breathes hard through his nose in irritation as he feel the blood from the wound collect tackily under the chestpiece. The next knife he is prepared for, and knocks aside with the flat of his blade. It screeches when the metals meet and then falls to the soft loamy ground.
“Wait,” she says again, more urgently now, but still he advances. Her water dancer’s blade is too thin to cut through his armor, made more for piercing between the joints or slicing at exposed skin, but he has always been faster than her and he has better reach besides. A fourth dagger flies from within her heavy cloak and he steps around it, lifting his sword. “Jaqen, please! ” She leaps backwards, away from his swing, only to realize her back is now against the wall of the hollow. Her Needle scores a line into the armor covering his stomach, but she doesn’t have enough strength to force the thin blade through the reinforced leather.
A change comes over her, and he sees the moment that she understands that she will find no mercy in him; her face closes, looking so impressively like No One that a man who has been named Jaqen H’ghar finds himself blinking in surprise. All but her eyes, grey and feral and frigid and Arya, and this faceless wolf amalgamate throws herself at him in fury. At such close quarter he cannot keep hold of his shortsword, and he drops it to draw his own dagger as she produces a fifth from what he can only presume is a bandolier hidden beneath her cloak.
Again they grapple, until he pulls her to the ground where he can use his weight against her. She aims for his head, his face, his throat, jabbing violently for the quickest kill she can get with no regard to how refined or clean it is, a wild desperation in her attacks foreign to he who trained her. Even with his larger stature against hers, using his core trunk muscles to roll them until she is on her back and he straddles her thighs, it is all he can do to keep her blade from gouging his eyes out. Pure luck lets him knock her dagger from her grip, and when he raises his own to sink into her gut she claws at his eyes and mouth with her hands, nails flaying open his skin and leaving trails of fire across his face, distracting him enough that his stab goes wide and sinks instead into the soil beside her stomach. Blood oozes from a particularly deep scratch and drips down onto her linen shirt. Dimly, as if from a distance, he is aware that her cloak has come unclasped in the melee.
“Stop,” she hisses, still clawing until he grabs her wrists and wrests them above her head with his hand, sacrificing his dagger to hold her still. His other hand wraps around her throat and squeezes. Inelegant, and he’d had every intention of giving her a faster and cleaner death, kindness only when it benefits her and cruelty too, but he has only just now realized how angry he is, as if being given a name for himself and accepting it has opened up a floodgate to emotion he’d not been aware he had. “Stop,” she says through a wheeze. Her hips buck beneath his violently and he remembers suddenly, like through a haze, the day he’d told her to lose her maidenhead and she’d asked if he would do it.
He would have. He would have. Gods, he would have. The thought only pains him now. Damning .
“Stop,” she says again, and, “Jaqen,” and, “please.” Her struggles quiet and slow beneath the force of his grip on her throat. This is how heroes die, he thinks to himself. This is how the dawn breaks.
“Valar morghulis,” he tells her, and feels her throat work in a swallow against his palm, a palm she’d kissed once.
“I’m pregnant,” she gasps, and it is as though the world around him stops.
It is a ploy, he thinks suddenly, a suspicion supported by the advantage she takes in his laxed grip, twisting sharply to flip their positions. Vertigo at the abrupt displacement takes him for a brief enough moment for her to grab her dagger off the ground and set it against his throat, a mirror of where he’d tried to strangle her. And yet, when his eyes flicker down-- yes. He is at an angle to see beneath the billow of her too-large shirt, and he spies it. A bump. The soft rounding of taut skin. Small, not far along at all, but assuredly there. Her wild desperation and pleading make sense now, when he’d only ever known her to fight wholy and with exactation. She has never given mercy and never expected it, before now.
He goes limp beneath her, dropping his head to the ground to stare at the bare branches of the trees above them. Snow collects, and through the grasping fingers of white wood he can see the night sky, clear and cold, and the stars beyond. The point of the dagger presses into his skin, piercing just barely.
“Do it then, lovely girl,” he says. “Go on.”
Arya grits her teeth. “Not yet. Answer my questions first.” She jabs her dagger forward lightly, opening him up more but not enough to leak lifeblood. He feels her thighs flex against his stomach; she is tense, prepared for a counterattack, but the fight has left him, as has the anger. He only nods at her. She cocks her head, panting lightly from the exertion of their fight. No, not anger now, guilt because she compromised him by giving him his name but he cares for her still, enough to let her leave the temple when her time there was done, though she’d left blood in her wake. “You won’t try to kill me?” He shakes his head. She growls and jabs again, harder, and when he looks in her eyes he sees hurt there. “Why not?”
“Payment was given for one death,” he tells her softly, “not two.”
She stares down at him, eyes wide and teeth bared, trying to discern the truth. But this is no lying game. He has nothing left for her now but truths. “Who paid to have me killed?”
“The Order. For your betrayal.”
She scoffs out a laugh, though her expression doesn’t add much humor to the sound. She looks, if anything, even angrier. She presses in again with the dagger; it is getting worryingly deep. Some animal instinct in him, engrained to the core of his being, struggles against this acceptance, something inside fights to live, but he’s tired now in a way he's never been before. It is exhausting, he thinks, to be. “So they sent you? ” She scoffs again. It sounds wet, unhappy. “If that really is you.”
“They branded this face to me.” He licks his lips. The stars are very bright tonight. He has never given himself time nor opportunity to consider his own death, aware of it's coming though he has been. He has never deceived himself into thinking he is immortal. Had he the option to choose a death, he thinks this would be the most fitting one; at her hands. “You remember? A man told you how a deep enough scar could sear false flesh to true?”
He remembers. She’d been younger then, had just earned back her eyes and was shown the Hall of Faces. She’d asked why the masks were needed when she’d seen him change his own at will, with just the press of his fingers to his temple. He’d shown her how the faces were prepared, the mix of substances used to cure them, how to care for the flesh of the masks. He’d explained how a branded face could only be worn by the one it was sealed to, condemned to that person with blood magic. A punishment, he’d said. She’d been so eager to learn. He’d never had an Apprentice before her. He was never given the option to have another, but he doesn’t think that he would have taken one even if he had. Unfair, to expect any other acolyte to measure up to the standards she'd set in him.
“I remember,” she says quietly. Then, sharper, “Why did they do that?”
“Punishment. For your betrayal. And mine.”
She reaches up with the hand that isn’t holding the dagger to his throat, bleeding him sluggishly, and touches the scar across his cheek that damns him. It draws the torn skin of her scratches tight and he gives an involuntary wince.
“What did they pay with?” She laughs; again, humorless. “What have they of worth compared to me?”
“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing of worth compared to you. But, the payment was Jaqen H’ghar.”
Her laughter stops and she stares at him. Surprised. “You? But-- you’re not Jaqen. You’re no one. I remember, you said it constantly.” Her mouth tips up into a mean little smile. “It seemed important to you to remind me.”
He nods. The dagger bites again. He is not losing enough blood to be truly threatened, but he feels lightheaded nonetheless. “I was. Once. Now I am someone.” He sighs and closes his eyes. “Though, not for long, I think.”
She moves over him, leaning closer; were he not wearing armor, he thinks he could feel that life within her pressing against his own stomach. “I should kill you,” she tells him. It’s impressively cold and unfeeling. Truly, spectacular. She has managed to marry the calculation and distance of no one with the ferocity of a wolf, to become some creature mixed of them, some being higher than anything a man who once was a Faceless Master has ever seen. It is a statement of fact in her mouth. I should kill you, she says, with the authority of nature. The sun will rise, the sky is blue, the river flows. I should kill you. He can only nod in agreement. She should. It would be kind. A kindness that benefits them both. A gift.
“Valar morghulis,” he tells her, a blessing, a benediction.
Instead, she moves away. She pulls off of him and stands, a smooth and economic motion, and finds her cloak on the ground. As she shakes it out, she says quietly, “But I don’t think I will. Not yet. Not today. You made me.” And then she looks at him with cold grey eyes, wolf eyes, and says the most damning thing of all: “And I made you.”
Arya Stark retrieves her weapons, and then his own, and he stares up at the sky above them and contemplates the statement. Yes. She made him indeed. He watches from his position, prone on the ground, as she moves back to her bedroll and sits, drapes the cloak back over her shoulders. One hand raises to rest upon the light bulge of her stomach. He had nearly stabbed her there. “Get up,” she says finally, “and remake the fire. There are hours to go before the dawn, and we need to have a talk, you and I.”
He considers this wolf, this weasel, this mouse and this ghost, this lovely girl he made and who made him.
He gets up, and obeys. All men must serve.