“Alayne? Come to the window, little dove.”
It is a cool command carried up on the wind. Mother doesn’t like to yell. There is no one in the lush glade besides Ser Gregor, who is always markedly silent. Despite being two hundred feet above, Alayne hears the words clearly.
She drops her book on the cushion beside her, not caring which way it falls, as she doesn’t want to keep Mother waiting. Besides, she read the book two dozen times; it was old tales of knights, and it was just as tattered as the other books on her high shelf. Alayne knows each of their heroic deeds and she feels her heart flutter as she fantasizes of a knight just as chivalrous for her own, tall and fair and gallant, who would climb up the tower and kiss her hand sweetly before carrying her away to a new life in a castle with endless grounds she could explore.
But Mother says such a life is impossible for her. Mother sneers at the covers of her books and huffs in irritation if she catches a verse or two of her songs. She would never marry, Mother said, a knight would never take her away to see more of the world. Any man or woman who ever found her, all except Mother, would seek to hurt her.
They would only want you for your magic, Mother told her again and again since she was old enough to understand. They would use you and bite you and break you for a single strand of your golden hair.
Alayne doesn’t know how much she believes of that. They are all so kind and well-intentioned in the stories and the songs, the people of the world outside her tower, and everything she sees from her window is lovely. The grass, the flowers, the stars. Especially the stars.
Besides, Mother uses her magic and she never harms her. Mother loves her.
Alayne peeks into the stove where a hot olive loaf is baking for the special dinner she prepared for Mother and rushes to the window. She loops her hair over the pulley and tugs.
Mother is slightly disheveled from the journey and her arms are laden with baskets. Most of the contents are food and other provisions, Alayne knows, but the rest would be gifts for her. Oils and soaps, books and paints, linen and silk and thread for dresses. There would be more baskets below to retrieve after dinner; she would lower her hair and Ser Gregor would tie the ends to the remaining baskets until they were through. Usually she was unbearably curious to look at her new things as soon as Mother returned, but today she barely spares the packages a second glance. Today, she would finally ask for her heart’s desire.
"Try this," Mother says, after smoothing her hands over her skirts and her hair. She holds a wine red fruit in her hand, broken into crescent pieces, the red seeds within glistening like the rubies in Mother's necklace. The dark red juice drips through mother's fingers.
Dutifully Alayne picks a piece of the strange fruit from Mother’s hand. She is bringing it to her mouth when Mother stops her with a mirthless chuckle.
"No, eat the seeds only."
Alayne does as Mother commands, though the seeds are slippery and some fall to the floor. She is pleased at the tartness of them, surprised at hard crunch in the center.
"Now you will be with me forever," Mother smiles.
Later they sit by the fire, Mother in the great chair and Alayne on the low stool at her feet. Dinner was a quiet affair— Mother was tired and didn’t want to talk much after inquiring as to how Alayne was faring here at the top of the tower for the weeks she was away. The same, Alayne responded. It was the only acceptable answer, and it was true.
Now Alayne looks at her mother’s reflection in the mirror, noting the serene expression on her face as she hums sweetly. This is the only time mother looks like this, as she smooths the pearl hairbrush down Alayne's hair. The hairbrush was expensive, Mother told her, but Alayne's precious hair deserves only the best.
Mother's golden hair is loose tonight, though it is darker than hers and doesn’t shine nearly as bright. Alayne is careful not to comment on Mother’s appearance in any way, she doesn’t want to disturb Mothers calm mood, doesn’t want to invite those sneers and sharp comments she sometimes doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know why Mother reacts that way if Alayne compliments her dress or her eyes— she is so beautiful, with her plush lips and sharp cheekbones. In quiet moments like this in front of the mirror, Alayne likes to look for similarities between them. They both have their golden hair—except for the red streak in Alayne’s— and when she was sixteen she started to lose some of the roundness in her face and her cheekbones had come in, like Mother’s. There were differences too. Her eyes are blue like the sliver of sky she can see from her tower window, and Mother’s are deep green like the blades of grass so far below. She wonders what they would feel like between her toes.
Mother is in such a good mood, a mischievous and indulgent part of her whispers. Alayne imagines this would be the voice of her naughty friend who always encourages Alayne’s worst ideas.
"Mother, my nineteenth nameday is coming," she begins tentatively.
"Hmmph," goes Mother, not exactly a displeased sound. "I will be away again." Her sharp eyes meet hers in the mirror for a moment and seem to find quite a bit there, for her hand pulls and her words come quick. "Don't be upset, don't say you've forgotten—"
"No, I’m not upset." Mother's trips were often and long. From ten years old Alayne would count the days Mother was gone and found that she only spent three or four months with her through the year.
It upset her when she was younger, especially since Qyburn used to replace Mother as her keeper. She didn’t like Qyburn— he never wanted to play or talk and he smelled strange. She hated his hands on her hair at the end of each night, his hungry eyes that would double in size as he smoothed oil in her hair and checked it for tangles. When she was a child she asked Mother if Qyburn was her father and she laughed and said no. Alayne was relieved. Qyburn was a medical man and Mother’s trusted friend, Mother said, the only person Mother would trust with her care.
Now Alayne finds she doesn’t mind Mother’s long absences. The thought sends a spike of guilt through her, but perhaps that’s just a part of growing up. Alayne quite enjoys her own company, and she is always on edge when Mother is home. She stopped counting the days that Mother was gone when she was fifteen.
Alayne takes a breath and then the plunge. "I thought... perhaps... I could come with you?"
In the mirror, Mother's eyes harden and Alayne pushes forward before she can reject her already. “I wouldn’t leave your sight for a moment, I promise. Ser Gregor could come with us and he would protect me. I only want to see the stars, Mother.”
“What stars? You can see the stars from your window.”
The words hurt Alayne but she ignores that. She talked about the stars for years but she knows Mother doesn’t pay attention to her mumbling, as she calls it.
Alayne waves her hand above them to the mural she painted of the magnificent sight. “Every year they light up the night sky, on my nameday. I can’t help but feel like they are meant for me.”
Mother smiles tightly. “How self-absorbed.”
The pang in Alayne’s chest is sharper this time. She didn’t mean it to sound self-absorbed, she was only pointing out a pattern. She knows she is wrong—those pretty floating lights have nothing to do with little Alayne Stone, a nobody—but she wants to see them. Stars are constant and small and they don’t move in front of her eyes, while these stars float in the prettiest way every year. She knows they’re different. How could she know what they mean, what they are, if she never sees them?
Alayne turns in her seat to face her mother. Mother sighs as the brush slips from her grasp at the sudden movement.
“I want to see them, Mother. I need to know what they are. Please… it could be my nameday present…. for the next five namedays! I swear, I won’t ask for anything more.”
“You can’t leave the tower. Haven’t I made that clear?”
“Yes, but I thought if—”
Did you think? Did you think at all? Why would I let you leave our safe home, why would I release you to the dangerous world?”
Alayne smiles to reassure her mother but it feels wrong on her face, shaky and afraid. “But if I was with you—”
“You still don’t understand. You think I’m being overbearing, controlling, a strict and foolish mother. You don’t believe it’s dangerous out there.”
Alayne’s mouth opens and then closes. Her mother is right. She doesn’t.
“Look at Ser Gregor, look what the world has done to him.” Mother’s gaze slips to the black window as if she can actually see him through the night. Her hands tighten in her hair. “I’ve never let you see him without his helmet. Just another way your foolish mother tried to protect you.”
Mother chuckles but the sound is dark. “His face is black and blue as he rots. His eyes are lopsided and red and they will haunt you. If you ever ask me to leave this tower again, I will take your foolish books away from you and make you look at Ser Gregor’s face instead.”
Her stomach turns at Mother’s words—they can’t be true, can they? She is only trying to scare her, like she always tries to scare her, so she won’t leave her tower.
“Your books lie about the world,” Mother says. “His face tells the truth.”
“Then give me books that tell the truth,” Alayne snaps before she can stop herself. She feels guilt and the slight prickle of fear as she looks at Mother’s pursed lips.
Her hands are quick, fisting in Alayne’s hair before she even sees them move. “Look at this,” Mother hisses, pulling the red strands into Alayne’s face, yanking so hard her eyes water and her scalp smarts. “They tried to steal it. They won’t hesitate to cut off more of you.”
“Stop that,” Alayne whispers, not liking the images her words conjure, dark images of imagined greedy men with knives.
“It frightens you? Good.” Mother yanks on the red hair looped over her fist one more time for good measure, jerking Alayne’s head with her. “You will never leave this tower.”
Mother’s forbidding words ring in Alayne’s head even when the brush in Mother’s hand resumes its soft motions. “You’ve interrupted our little ritual… sing for me.”
There’s only one song Mother likes to hear from her, and it isn’t any of her fanciful romantic ones.
Alayne sings, her sadness only lending a sweetness to her voice. The glow starts at the roots of her hair and spreads slowly, lighting up the room as it travels through her impossibly long hair that lays spread around them. But nothing shines brighter than Mother’s face as her skin smooths and shines with health, her eyes sparkling.
“Bring back what once was mine,” Alayne finishes the song, and Mother heaves a great sigh of satisfaction.
“Don’t be glum, little dove.” Mother is glowing, a small smile quirking up the corners of her mouth. Her eyes have left Alayne and rest on her own reflection in the mirror. "Mother knows best."